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The Tragedy of the Commons

Years ago Garrett Hardin wrote about the "tragedy of the commons" -- the tendency for individuals to want to maximise their use of commonly held resources, and the seemingly remorseless march to exploitation and environmental exhaustion that results.

A century or two ago, those commons were easy to identify; the common was literally held in common, whether the village green or the "freedom" of the seas. These days it is much, much harder, particularly as commercial imperatives play an increasingly important role in our recognition of resources and their development. That movement from the commons to the commercial has engendered a good deal of concern and, in some cases, with good reason.

It's probably no surprise to anyone that a recent HortResearch survey into GE attitudes has identified a great deal of cynicism, aimed particularly at big businesses which are perceived to possess a monopoly over the distribution of information and policy formation.

I recently attended a symposium on genetic technology which sought to canvass a broad range of attitudes and opinions over a raft of issues relating to GE. At one point, a member of the audience asked why we did not have an independent body able to talk to the public about such technology and its implications. While that may have been a little disheartening for seminar sponsor ERMA (the Environmental Risk Management Authority, who has that very function as one of its roles), it demonstrates that anything which has a governmental or commercial link is immediately regarded as worthy of suspicion.

Such suspicions were only confirmed by the scientists at the seminar, a number of whom mentioned the commercial focus of the current national research structure, and their own qualms about that focus. And even university researchers are not immune -- the ivory tower has been well and truly stormed, and now usually has a sponsor's logo stamped on it...

Yet if we're not prepared, as a society, to support independent research, we have only ourselves to blame if our genes are sold to the highest bidder.

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.