plant phys use in breeding

Stuart Brown browns at
Wed Sep 23 15:10:29 EST 1992

In article <1992Sep20.130810 at IASTATE.EDU> rjsalvad at IASTATE.EDU (Ricardo J Salvador) writes:
>I'd say that "exploiting" is perhaps not the best choice of a word.  My
>feeble attempts to understand the deleterious effects of technology on
>societies, in spite of the potential for great generalized benefit, has
>led to the conclusion that very few cases of outright evil intent or 
>conspiracies can actually be found, rather people make decisions and 
>"exploit the opportunities" of the moment without adequately considering
>(or perhaps even being able to consider) the full extent of the consequences.
>I'd say that this applies particularly to the daylaborers in the trenches,
>whether those be auto assembly line workers, or you and I myopically entranced
>by the physiology of the third molecule from the left within the inner
>sanctums of our respective universities.
>"scientific" activity is complex and expensive, and that resources to
>conduct all conceivable projects are limited, what science gets performed,
>by whom, and for what intent (who benefits) comes down to an economic
>decision.  If one aims at specific targets the use of one's limited
>resources is much more responsible than the shotgun approach glorified

>is difficult to do, but I'd say scientific investigation is most definitely
>NOT about endowing academics with high tech toys so that they might 
>happly frolic and hope that perchance a byproduct of their enjoyment might
>be of benefit to humankind.  I'd say this applies to all scientific fields.
>> It does, and I'd like to get back to plant biology.
>I share the joy of 'plant biology' with you.  However, I'd insist that
>questions and answers framed in terms of human needs ought always to steer
>and guide our practice of any science or industry.  In comparison to the
>former, the latter are clearly the small stuff and are therefore much
>easier to deal with.  That a thing is easier to do than alternatives, that
>it provides satisfaction, or that it is possible to do, need not always
>justify that it be done.

I enjoyed this post, Ricardo.  However I think you are persuing a bit of a
false dichotomy here between science as the joyfull intellectual frolicking
of an intellectual elite and science clearly focused on solving problems of
acute human needs.  I've spent enough time at professional meetings and 
listening to tales of woe about grant proposal writing (as well as writing
some myself) to know that science is always done to meet politically imposed
goals.  These goals may be short term - such as a chemical to combat a new
plant disease - or long term - such as thermonuclear fusion reactors, but
the money is appropriated because a practical return is expected.

I believe that science is driven by technology and by social factors a great
deal more than most of us scientists are willing to admit.  There are numerous
examples of major breakthroughs being discovered independantly by two or
more investigators at the same time - and how many major discoveries of the
past few decades have come down to races between competing labs?  Similarly,
major discoveries that were not in harmony with the existing level of 
technology are often ignored: Mendel's genetics, McClintock's genetics?
I draw a parallel to military research: when a new type of weapon becomes 
possible due to technology improvements, it must be invented - generally first 
by the country that spends the most on weapons development, and then followed 
very quickly by its major competitors.

My point here is a little vague even to myself, but I will try and focus.
Science is not a random walk in quest of knowledge.  Science is a highly
directed process that moves in fits and starts, but only in the direction that
we are looking.  At the same time, every type of scientific study that is
possible at a given level of technology is not persued.  We don't do controlled
human breeding experiments, nor do we continue to investigate the effects of
larger and larger nuclear explosions on the stratosphere.  As a scientist, each
of us is compelled to work within the constraints of political oversight on
research goals, but we are also empowered to alter those goals by sharing
information with politcians and with the public about the possible outcomes
of various research efforts. In other words, we have quite a bit of choice and
responsibility about how our science impacts society.

I feel quite confident about these general principles.  What I don't understand
at all clearly are the particular applications of specific technologies. There
has been a fair bit of talk here about the use of information management in
agriculture. This is clearly a technology driven discipline where people are
working simultaneously on similar projects all over the world - so how will
different approaches to this problem impact the social and economic infra-
structure of farming?  How about the rapidly advancing disciplines like plant 
gentics and human genetics? Do we have choices about developing plants that are 
resistant to trademarked herbicides vs. plants that are inherantly able to 
outcompete weeds?  Can we choose how data on genetic traits is used in pre-natal
care? Or are these choices too technology driven to be controlled by ethics?


Stuart M. Brown                             If you can remain cool when all 
U. of Manitoba, Dept. Plant Science         Around you are in panic,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA
browns at            Then you surely misunderstand the situation

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