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01 August 2002

Focus groups and Corngate


Six months before the election, WHAM spoke to a number of agencies and industries with a vested interest in seeing the cautious exploitation of GE technology, warning them that GE was almost certain to be a major election issue. None were particularly concerned.

They should have been.

The Greens led the charge, followed by Sir Peter Elworthy's Coalition of the Distinguished, who in turn were gazzumped by Corngate.

The GE debate is based on fear of the unknown. In such debates, alarmist accusations will always defeat scientists arguing theoretical benefits and safeguards, especially if the boffins venture down the ‘trust us, we know best' route.

The only way to reassure the public is to provide specific examples of benefit. The proof: the Greens' shift from total opposition to GE to ‘Keep it in the Lab', thanks to the strong public support for GE-vaccines and drugs, especially insulin for diabetics, which emerged during the Royal Commission hearings.

The Life Sciences Network misjudged the mood. The Labour Party also failed to pick it up in their focus groups, presumably because respondents rarely put ‘fear of the unknown' at the top of their lists of political concerns.

Which should tell pollsters, politicians and PR people something about the limitations of focus groups.

- Trevor Walton

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