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Sense about food science

Max Goldman of Sense About Science explains the charity’s work to help inform the public about the science behind food and its production and to equip people to make sense of scientific claims

In the summer of 2012, protesters were once again threatening to destroy an experimental GM crop. But when plant scientists from Rothamsted Research appealed for discussion instead of destruction of their GM wheat trial, the public came out in their support and the action was called off. More than 6,000 people from stay-at-home mums to insurance brokers, air traffic controllers to film makers, signed our ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ petition. The day of action aimed at destroying the wheat crop failed and the trial went ahead.

For Sense About Science, it was a watershed moment. We are a charity that stands up for scientific inquiry, free from stigma, intimidation, hysteria or censorship. Here was proof that people can and do care for scientific research – especially when it is publically funded, as this trial was.

This was achieved in large part by getting scientists themselves to explain publicly and plainly what they were doing and why. At the end of the open appeal letter they wrote: ‘As scientists we know only too well that we do not have all the answers. That is why we need to conduct experiments. And that is why you in turn must not destroy them’ [1].

Our experience from 12 years of campaigning has shown that, contrary to the beliefs of many in academia and industry, the public can be trusted with difficult and nuanced information. In fact, it is precisely when scientists fail to talk about their work that science becomes vulnerable to misunderstanding and attack. Getting scientists to enter the public discussion is key.

The firestorm over GM ‘Frankenfoods’ that played out in the UK over 10 years ago, which many readers will be painfully familiar with, was in part the result of a debate that spiraled away from the realities of the plant science being done.

Sense About Science began working to change the public discussion on GM in particular in 2009 with the launch of our guide, Making Sense of GM [2]. In the guide, scientists and agriculturalists launched a fresh public discussion about the technology: one that put GM back into the context of developing plant breeding techniques and that responded openly and in detail to the public’s questions and misconceptions. It examined in particular the way GM had been debated in the past and presented commentary from scientists, who lent perspectives rarely taken into account in debates on GM.

"Our experience from 12 years of campaigning has shown that, contrary to the beliefs of many in academia and industry, the public can be trusted with difficult and nuanced information."

Of course public discussion of plant science went far beyond GM as well. Ash Dieback disease, bees and pesticides, mycotoxins in food and biofuels were all addressed. Plant research is central to decisions about future energy, land use, wildlife, environmental protection, pest problems, nutrition and food safety. For all these areas, it is important for there to be an ongoing dialogue between researchers and the public. That’s why leading research institutions and learned societies across the UK now work with us to make themselves available in a public panel [3], where people can raise questions and opinions about plant science and get a response from the experts.

We describe the plant science panel as a discussion that is public led, expert fed: in other words, the panel starts with people’s real questions and concerns. The panel has so far answered hundreds of questions from people on Twitter using #plantsci, and we arrange special live Q&As on hot topics like genome editing and insecticides. This kind of engagement between the public and researchers is invaluable for both sides.

Since Making Sense of GM, we have published plenty of other public guides touching on food science, including Making Sense of Chemical Stories [4] and, most recently, Making Sense of Allergies [5]. Two years ago we also produced a short guide and presentation on food additives [6], following many enquiries from journalists, researchers and the general public on the subject. For this publication, we asked specialists to provide some straightforward answers about the science behind food preservation, the meaning and reasons for E-numbers in food and drink, what scientists say about possible adverse health effects of specific additives and how additives are tested and regulated for public safety. The guide flags up the more serious misconceptions that exist around food additives and suggests straightforward ways to evaluate them. These were a collection of questions and concerns that people had about their food, combined with plain-language answers which are hard to come by. The additives guide has remained popular and has been used by, among others, Jamie Oliver to educate his team.

As well as working with the public, another big part of what we do is encouraging scientists – especially early career researchers – to play an active role in public debates about science, with our Voice of Young Science (VoYS) programme [7]. VoYS is a supportive network that organises myth-busting and evidence-hunting campaigns. It consists of over 1500 early career researchers, engineers, scientists and medics who want to stand up for science in public discussions. They tackle misconceptions, challenge pseudoscientific product claims and respond to misinformation in all kinds of media.

"VoYS is a supportive network that organises mythbusting and evidencehunting campaigns."

VoYS members also encourage other early career researchers to get involved, sending the message that it is important for scientists to stand up for science in public discussion and that you do not need to wait until the end of your career to do so. Over the years, VoYS has taken on projects including food additives, fad diets and so-called detox.

Back in 2009, VoYS released a breakthrough publication called The Detox Dossier, a report of its hunt for evidence behind the claims made about detox products and diets. VoYS investigated 15 products that were being sold at the time in a range of mainstream supermarkets and pharmacies including foot pads, diet supplements and hair straighteners. The manufacturers were contacted to find out what evidence they had for the product claims and what they meant by ‘detox’. No two manufacturers gave the same definition, neatly demonstrating the meaninglessness FOOD SENSE of ‘detox’ as an advertising term.

To follow-up, VoYS members then compiled an ‘anti detox’ leaflet explaining how the body is perfectly capable of dealing with most chemicals we encounter and how ‘detox’ has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning. The leaflet promotes the liver and kidneys as a fantastic ‘detox’ system and explains why there is no need to spend money on expensive products and treatments. As claims and advertisements for ‘detox’ products tend to pop-up in January – after we have all indulged in December – VoYS members took to the streets of London, Manchester and Cambridge and distributed over 400 of the leaflets outside chemists. They explained that the best thing to do after an indulgent Christmas was to get a good night’s sleep and have a glass of water!

More recently VoYS members have focused on diets. The diet industry is drowning in reams of conflicting advice, dodgy nutrition claims and self-styled gurus in newspapers, lifestyle magazines and all over social media. Diet claims might seem silly or easily dismissed, but we sometimes need to make more of a fuss about all the silly claims because they are not without consequence. People actually introduce malnutrition through overly restricted diets, they buy expensive products and exotic foods and they lose heart following unsustainable diets when they need to make a significant health change.

Last year, to highlight just how many dangerously bogus fad diets there are, VoYS members launched an online ‘spoof diets’ quiz, in which they completely made up five diets of their own and mixed them up with five ‘real’ diets that were doing the rounds. They challenged people to distinguish between the spoofs, from those merely lacking in proof. Visitors to the quiz were then given a few tips to spot fad diets or bad advice (e.g. unless you are in extreme training, you probably do not need a high protein diet; and unless you are pregnant or seriously ill, you are unlikely to need a daily regime of vitamin supplements).

Finally, we have begun working directly with the public in tackling misinformation. For the past two years, we have encouraged nonscientists to undertake their own evidence-hunting activity with the Ask for Evidence campaign [8], which helps people request the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies. People get help from us understanding evidence they are sent in response to their requests on the campaign website. By encouraging people to ask for evidence and providing help with the answers they get, we are aiming to make our culture one in which companies, politicians and organisations are accountable for the claims they make.

The thinking is that no matter how many guides we publish or scientists we work with, there will always be more claims and subjects that people want and need to know about – people need to be equipped to question claims about science themselves. People ask about a huge variety of things – from the evidence behind major government policies and health claims to beauty products and food and diet claims. For us, this is further proof that the public can be involved in difficult discussions about evidence and the status of research. Although there is still plenty to do to improve the way scientific research is debated and understood in the UK, we have seen remarkable progress since Sense About Science began in 2002. Although we will continue to campaign, work with scientists and produce guides and resources, Ask for Evidence represents how the public themselves are getting involved in the next chapter of our work.


Max Goldman, Sense About Science, 14a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DP
Tel: +44 (0)20 7490 9590

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