Several important occurrences and controversies took place during late 2013 that demonstrate the complex entanglements of science, capital, citizens and public health. I will highlight only three, which occurred in a space of three weeks and which no doubt will spark debate for years to come.
Last week Randy Schekman, a cell biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine 2013, for his work on how cells transport and secrete proteins. Almost simultaneously he wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian on how journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science. Scheckman indicated that he will no longer contribute his research to these publications as they are arguably far more interested on media impacts and revenue than the quality and transparency of scientific research. Most importantly, Scheckman was quick to point out how science must embrace a new breed of free open-access journals such as eLife, an open access journal funded by the UK's Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the German Max Planck Society, of which he is as an editor.
This brings me to a second event. Two weeks before Scheckman's piece condemning the mainstream science journals, Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based leading provider of science and health information, announced that the article by Gilles Eric Séralini et al. "Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize" had been retracted by the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. The journal had received expressions of concern about the validity of the findings and allegations of fraud. These concerns have proven to be baseless. This comes at the same time as Elsevier started a crackdown on articles uploaded on Academia, which was quickly followed by a petition from almost 15,000 academics worldwide protesting against Elsevier's business practices and providing background to the current boycott of Elsevier by many mathematicians (and other academics).
But what is so controversial about Séralini's work? Plainly speaking, and while the results were criticised by a sector of the scientific community, his research team showed that laboratory rats fed throughout their lives with genetically modified maize from Monsanto developed hepato-renal problems, premature death and cancer in 60-70% of cases (against 20-30% in the control group). While Séralini's work has also been supported by important groups such as the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Sustainability, it continues to be denigrated – as expected - by the transnationals of the food and seed industry (Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF). To add fuel to the controversy, earlier in 2013 the occupy Monsanto activist group called a global day of action which had over 400 events in over 45 countries.
After the release of the Séralini et al's article, the French government considered pressing for a Europe-wide ban on GM corn, while the European Commission instructed the independent European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to undertake an independent assessment.
In Australia commercial growing of genetically engineered canola and cotton is legal, making it one among a minority of countries around the world that commercially grow GM crops. Both Monsanto and Bayer have applied to grow modified canola across Australia. Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM canola is commercially available in NSW, WA and Victoria, and Monsanto Australia has called for the ban on GM in South Australia to be lifted and for farmers to make their own choices. South Australia is not alone on this, with countries banning Monsanto including Germany, Greece, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, and France.
This point brings me to a third controversy that occurred in late 2013, which, while different to the other two, also foregrounds the thorny dealings between science, citizens and public health. This is the legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay.
On the same day as Scheckman was receiving his Nobel Prize in Oslo, the President of Uruguay, José "Pepe" Mujica, was announcing that Uruguay had become the first Latin American country to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana, and the first in the world to put all these aspects under state control. This is a very significant political test for one of Latin America´s most progressive governments, which during 2013 became the second country in Latin America after Argentina to pass a same-sex marriage law.
As in other progressive Latin American liberal states, citizens have taken to the streets and the polling booths to take the lead in important reforms. In Uruguay the measure to legalize how marijuana would be produced, distributed and sold was put to a referendum, instead of going through Uruguay's Congress.
This is certainly a huge challenge for Uruguay, which will need to stand firm against the pressure of countries such as the US and international organisations like the UN, which quickly moved to criticise Uruguay's bold move to treat the problem as a health issue in need for innovative policy reform, saying Uruguay's decision to legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana violates international law.
Several things are at stake in these controversies. First, the transparency of scientific practices and the dissemination of contentious results. Secondly, the lack of a proper platform for debate from where citizens can engage in critical scientific debates and decisions that affect their futures. Third the need for policy actors to recognise the complex interactions between 'lay' public knowledge and 'expert' scientific knowledge.
As the year 2013 winds up these three significant controversies demonstrate beyond any doubt that the need to clarify our understanding of the complex interfaces and intersections between science and citizenship in a global context, and how citizens engage in critical scientific debates and decisions that affect their futures is now more pertinent than ever.