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Independent on Sunday

Leader: Protest is an ally of science. 26 May 2002

Nullius in verba – "take nobody's word for it" – reads the motto of the Royal Society, where the Prime Minister last week made his speech to "speak up for science". It is a good description of good science, which challenges the consensus, investigates the truth, and subjects everything to rigorous and independent testing. It is also, of course, the very antithesis of spin.

Predictably, perhaps, Mr Blair seems more concerned with spin than science. Much of his speech, it is true, was unexceptional: the importance of technological advance and a call for more and better scientific education. But as he himself made clear, it was not such sentiments that prompted him to make it. Instead it was a meeting with a group of Indian "academics, who were also in business in the biotech field", who regarded the European GM debate as "utterly astonishing", "saw us as overrun by campaigners who used emotion to drive out reason", and thought that we "lacked the political will to stand up for proper science".

It is worth dwelling on that encounter, for it tells us perhaps more than Mr Blair would like about his real attitude to science. The Indians were not classic disinterested scientists objectively pursuing truth; they were in business, and the biotech business at that. They were also objecting to a debate over acceptance of the very technologies in which they had a financial interest. And finally they dismissed their opponents as emotional and irrational; only theirs was the "proper science" and it must be imposed by political action.

As the anecdote reveals, Mr Blair seems incapable of distinguishing between science and the interests of business. Sometimes they will coincide, but at other times they will conflict. Science now shows clearly, for example, that car exhaust pollution kills at least 12,000 Britons a year, but Mr Blair continues to be the principal driver of a pro-car transport policy. He does not want to know about the dangers of traffic growth, any more than he wants to do more than pay lip service to the growing scientific evidence that genes from GM crops will escape, with incalculable effects on farming and the environment. He takes business's word for it every time.

He is also less interested in debate than in dismissing critics as "anti-scientific" Luddites. He condemns those who, reprehensibly, destroy GM trials as wanting "to stifle scientific debate". But, as we reported last week, his government is preparing new legislation to stop challenges to the safety of GM crops and food at public hearings. The effect, of course, will be to "stifle debate". But whether he likes it or not, there are real concerns about the technology that need to be discussed – and the science, the real "proper science", is increasingly supporting them. The Independent on Sunday has been investigating and reporting them for many years now, and will continue to do so. For we are not going to take Mr Blair's, or any interested party's, word for it.