London (16.08.16) –
Before too many years of GM-crops debate and argument had passed, it became
clear that the unfolding of a very interesting phenomenon was taking place.
A new set of scientific technologies had provoked widespread reaction, many
of them antipathetic, for a wide variety of reasons, themselves topics for
fierce argument and discussion.
The validity of the science itself, and the safety of GM-products, was attested by most of the scientific community and essentially all of the official agencies internationally responsible for food and environmental safety. But, in many cases, to no avail: opposition, it seemed to most scientists, was not clearly based primarily on the validity of scientific findings although many opponents claimed that it was. These counter arguments were in turn rejected by that first group who perceived them as being motivated by the pursuit of political, commercial and other interests for which scientific validity was, at best, of secondary importance.
From the first marketing of GM-agricultural products in1995 or thereabouts there had accumulated a vast amount of material relating to GM, particularly as regards its use in agriculture and the products thereby derived. Some people demanded total banishment of all GM-technology in agriculture and food; others seemed satisfied if the products were labelled. Some people seemed to foresee GM technology in food and agriculture as presaging the end of human existence and society as we know them. Others feared something similar if GM were to be rejected. Thousands upon thousands of articles, news items, letters, books, pamphlets and online reports were published together with more thousands of hours of radio and television broadcasting. Films were made and books published…..
This was not the first time there had been vigorous public reaction to new technologies. While new technologies are often accepted with alacrity – think of the Sony Walkman and the iPhone – there may sometimes be trouble. Riots in London against smallpox vaccination in the 19th century were followed by objections in Oklahoma to the electric telegraph connection with New Orleans which would bring only bad news and encourage gambling. There were (and remain) objections to milk pasteurisation and to mobile phone transmitters, not to mention nuclear power.
By about 2008 it was clear that the GM phenomenon would have considerable importance for the future understanding of societal reactions to the introduction of new technologies. Whatever the eventual outcome, there were many lessons to be learned about how (and how not) to introduce a new technology as well as whether (or not) it may be wise to do so. It would constitute an important subject for future as well as contemporary study but much would be lost if records and ephemera of all sorts were not retained under safe conditions; one could not (and still cannot) know in advance what will be needed in future and what would be of interest to future scholars. It would be best to keep safe as much as possible.
Together with the Science Museum in London, and following consultation with colleagues at the British Library, a project developed to establish an archive of material relevant to the GM crops and foods debate, encompassing all shades of opinion from the most enthusiastic proponents to the most determined opponents, so that all arguments and all points of view were preserved. Everything of interest (paper, film, tape, disk, websites, equipment, etc.) would be eligible for inclusion except for biological material (living or dead) for which there were no adequate storage facilities. The items collected would be held by the Science Museum with everything freely accessible to anyone and everyone who might wish to make use of it. Some relevant material was already archived by government agencies, companies, universities and others; it was hoped that these would eventually be linked online with the proposed Science Museum collection.
Much of the vulnerable material was likely to be held by individuals. Ideally that needed to be secured before any of it was thrown away but by 2008 it was already too late: people do periodically clean out their filing cabinets. Nevertheless, much of the interesting material was expected still to be in place, held by scientists and other academics, industry, farming interests, government, campaigners, the media and others.
The original intention was to include material from around the world but a few weeks talking to colleagues in the US and elsewhere quickly revealed that such an ambition was for the much longer term, and would involve many more people, than the initial plans could accommodate. Moreover, the Science Museum’s remit is to collect material from UK sources, not from the whole world. Realism intervened and the aim was reset towards British sources of which there turned out to be a surprisingly large quantity.
Since 2008 all manner of relevant items have been collected; delivery to the museum was complete by early in 2014. Space and facilities had to be organised before the archive became public but now it is finally open for use, housed at the Science Museum’s Wroughton site near Swindon (Red Barn Gate, Red Barn, Wroughton, Swindon SN4 9LT; tel: +44-(0)-1793-846222); intending users should contact the archivist before visiting.
Pending funding for the preparation of a full catalogue, a rather broad listing of contents in 36 sections is available online at http://archives.sciencemuseumgroup.ac.uk/search/simple. In “Search in” in the central column click on “Science Museum, London”. Then enter "genetic" in “Search”, Click on “Title” in “Sort By” and finally click on “Search” on the line below “Sort Order”. That leads to the 36 sections detailed over several pages. Very roughly, the archive currently comprises 53 box files, 9 boxes and 23 linear metres of shelf space plus a fair number of other items.
We hope to spread as widely as possible notice of the existence of this archive so that anybody in the UK who may have relevant material contacts Mr. Nick Wyatt (Acting Head of Library & Archives, Dana Research Centre and Library, Science Museum, 165 Queen1s Gate, London SW7 5HD; 020 7942 4258; nick.wyatt@ScienceMuseum.ac.uk) and that colleagues around the world will be inspired to establish GM archives in their own countries, all of them eventually interlinked online.
Vivian Moses, Chairman, CropGen