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When scientists fight

The British and the Swedes do it differently, declares Lena Eriksson
Science reporting in Britain has over the last few years featured high-profile controversies, in which scientists who have made contentious claims have been ousted from their former research communities.
Treatment of dissent
British and Swedish scientists differed on how controversial scientists should be treated. British scientists felt it was crucial to avoid giving scientific legitimacy to scientists that they described as ‘mavericks’. They operated with firm boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and felt it was necessary to distance mavericks from the scientific community. Swedish scientists thought that ousting dissenting scientists only made the problems worse. Operating with a notion of a scientist who began trying to get the attention of his or her peers, but who was gradually driven out of the community and thus became an outsider, Swedish interviewees favoured an inclusive strategy to avoid the situation spiralling out of control. Outright and detrimental controversy could be prevented by organisations having room for ‘peculiar’ views, they said. The crucial factor would be for the scientist to feel that he or she could be heard within the collective.

Conclusions
The research found that the scientists interviewed in Britain and Sweden constructed and managed dissent in different ways. Their differing perceptions of both dissenting scientists and the larger scientific community fed through to the way they organised and presented themselves and their own communities. Scientists’ boundaries of acceptable behaviour, ‘the right to be wrong’, thus appeared to be drawn differently amongst scientists from different national research cultures. The fact that British scientists confine themselves within narrow boundaries may increase the likelihood of scientific controversies moving into the public domain, as the ousted scientists are forced to seek new audiences for their claims. A Swedish ‘big tent’ strategy, which makes room for marginal views, could potentially serve to diminish the risk of all-out battles between scientists in the full glare of mass media.
References 1. Atterstam, Inger. 2003. “Akrylamid Ger Inte Cancer”. Svenska Dagbladet 28 - 01- 2003, Inrikes. 2. Eriksson, Lena. 2004. From Persona to Person: The Unfolding of an (Un)Scientific Controversy (forthcoming). PhD Thesis. Cardiff University. 3. The study was sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of the Science in Society Programme The interviewees included molecular biologists and biochemists in university, research institute and industry employment. The British scientists worked at Bristol University, Cardiff University, Oxford University, IACR Rothamsted, John Innes Institute and Syngenta UK; the Swedish scientists at Gothenburg University, Chalmers University of Technology, The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK), Plant Science Sweden, Svalov-Weibull and Syngenta Sweden.

Arpad Pusztai: perceived as maverick

Most notable have been the so-called Pusztai affair (which is often said to have sparked the GM controversy in Britain) and the MMR controversy. The treatment of the scientists at the centre of these storms can easily give rise to conspiracy theories. The issue, it seems, is partly one of tolerance for, and management of, dissent in science. The most recent high-profile controversy in Sweden was over ‘cancer in crisps’. It broke out over the detection of high levels of the chemical acrylamide in certain starch-based foods, such as potato crisps and french fries, when they had been cooked at high temperatures.1 Previous research indicates that tolerance for dissent might differ in Britain and Sweden.2 I set out to establish whether this was the case, and to study how this might influence the public face of science in the respective countries. I conducted a one-year qualitative study, interviewing some thirty scientists in Britain and Sweden, all working with issues of genetic modification in three different institutional settings.3 The results of the study can be summarised as follows.

Publishing science
All the institutions had rules for monitoring outgoing material, whether press releases, conference papers or journal articles. With the exception of university research, these rules tended to be more elaborate, and taken more seriously, in Britain than in Sweden. British scientists also felt that a breach of the rules would have graver consequences, than did their Swedish peers. Interestingly, British scientists viewed the rules about vetting outgoing material as safety mechanisms in place for their own protection, whereas Swedish interviewees perceived such procedures as a sign of increasing bureaucracy that risked impinging on their favoured way of working, in which all members should be able to have their say. These different attitudes appeared to be linked to the respective groups’perception of how the larger scientific community would view prospective contentious research results. British scientists wanted data to be absolutely watertight before they published anything, feeling they would otherwise risk the scientific community – as one scientist said – ‘coming down like a ton of bricks’.

Perceptions of dissent
British and Swedish scientists perceived dissent, and dissenting scientists, in different ways. British interviewees viewed controversies as events, caused by pre-existing dissenters within the community. The Swedish scientists tended to think of controversies as a process, and of fully-fledged ‘mavericks’ as the dangerous result of a gradual positioning of disenchanted scientists who ended up attacking the collective they were no longer part of.

Lena Eriksson is a Research Associate at Cardiff University. Her PhD research focuses on understandings and definitions of expertise in safety evaluations of genetically modified foods ErikssonL@Cardiff.ac.uk

June 2004 | SCIENCE & PUBLIC AFFAIRS | page 25