Science in Society Archive

The Importance of Being a Science Activist

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Launch of Confessions to a Serial Womaniser: Secrets of the World's Inspirational Women by Zerbanoo Gifford, Nehru Centre, London, 1 October 2007.

Thank you Zerbanoo for including me in such illustrious company of inspiring women. And what a great project you’ve managed to accomplish. I can assure you that I am at least as inspired by you as you are by me.

I want to tell you how I became a science activist, not an activist scientist, but a scientist working for science because I am convinced of the importance of science.

In 1994, I was invited to a conference in Penang on “Redefining the life sciences” organised by Martin Khor of the Third World Network, and Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation of Science, Technology and Ecology. These amazing people changed my life.

I started to tell the conference about my own attempt at redefining the life sciences. I was developing a new science of the organism [1, 2] (see The Rainbow and the Worm - The Physics of Organisms 2nd Edition ), after having searched for it all my life, changing fields many times till I found it: a science I truly love, that enables me to love everything else besides. I waxed lyrical about non-equilibrium thermodynamics and quantum theory, totally carried away...

It went down like a lead balloon.

No one understood a word I said though they were obviously impressed at my enthusiasm. After several irrelevant comments by some members of the audience, Martin confessed that they were worried about genetic engineering, and genetically modified crops were about to hit the Third World, like another Green Revolution only worse.

Having been a molecular geneticist just before then, I said: “But genetic engineering can’t work. Haven’t you heard of the fluid genome?” Everyone perked up then.

I explained that since the mid 1970s, molecular geneticist have been making momentous discoveries using genetic engineering as a research tool and had turned genetics upside down. By 1980, they had already coined the term “the fluid genome” to describe the new genetics. Organisms are not hardwired in their genes as previously thought, with one gene determining one character. On the contrary, genes and gene products are dancing together while messages are flying to and from the environment, determining which genes are turned on, where, when, to what degree and for how long. The genetic material itself can even be marked and rewritten, changing the organism and its offspring. Lamarck’s controversial idea of the inheritance of acquired characters is clearly at work, as far as the genetic material is concerned.

Unfortunately, the genetic engineers were making genetically modified organisms under the mistaken assumptions of the old genetics, which is why it doesn’t work, and is dangerous besides [3-5] (see Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare, Living with the Fluid Genome, Life After the Central Dogma, SiS 24).

We have presented the latest evidence on the problems and hazards of genetic modification to the European Parliament in June this year, with an international panel of independent scientists and Members of the European Parliament, calling for a global ban on GM crops and a comprehensive shift to sustainable non-GM agriculture [6] (Scientists and MEPs for a GM free Europe, SiS 35).

To get back to the conference, in 1994, Martin was thrilled, and made me write it all down, “so we can save the world”, he said. That was how I became transformed from an ivory tower academic to a science activist. Martin was of course exaggerating about saving the world. And he did not allow for fact that science was being taken over and corrupted by corporate interests. I began to learn just how important it is for society to have independent science, and the right kind of science.

Science is the most abiding, and, as my dear husband is not here, I can say, possibly the greatest love of my life. I firmly believe that everyone, policy-makers and ordinary citizens, need to know what’s being done in science, to be inspired yes, but also to have a say in it, and be able to participate in making decisions that will both affect every aspect of our daily life and whether we shall survive global warming.

To help get independent science to the public and to promote science that’s socially accountable and ecologically sustainable, I co-founded the Institute of Science in Society in 1999 with my other great love, husband and fellow scientist, Peter Saunders, professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London University. We were soon joined by Joe Cummins, Emeritus professor of plant genetics at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. With an informal international network of independent scientists and some bright young researchers and managers, Julian Haffegee, Sam Burcher and Andy Watton, we run campaigns, organise public meetings and briefings for the UK and European Parliament, go on lecture tours, maintain a popular website, an e-mail list and publish a quarterly magazine, Science in Society, books and reports.

We have covered practically every field of science and every topical issue: genetic engineering, climate change, renewable energies, sustainable agriculture, HIV/AIDS, stem cells, quantum communication. In our latest report, we expose the Food Standards Agency for, once again, ignoring scientific evidence that certain food colourings are linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, and giving advice to parents that is completely at odds with the scientists’ conclusions.

Of one thing I am sure: we have all the science and technologies that could set us free from fossil fuels to significantly mitigate global warming and enable us to survive in style, without the nuclear option [7] (Which Energy?, ISIS Report). But our policy-makers are wedded to the old paradigm in its most destructive form, the environmental bubble economy, or the dominant economic model of infinite growth, based on unbridled competition and unsustainable exploitation of ecological resources, generating huge amounts of waste and dissipation, and fouling the environment. This model stems from the Darwinian worldview that unbridled competition, the struggle for survival of the fittest, is what drives progress.

But Darwin is wrong, nature does not work like that, and when we run the world guided by this mistaken ideology, we get into deep trouble, as she is telling us

loud and clear right now: global warming,  fossil fuels and water running out, and food production in trouble from decades of destructive monoculture farming. Not to mention accelerating species extinction, and the huge inequalities that support a few mega-rich people on top of massive poverty in the world.

We need a change of paradigm and a change of heart, and here is where science can help most of all. ISIS has been promoting a postmodernist holistic, organic science emerging across the disciplines, in place of the reductionist, mechanical perspective of modernist science. Many original articles are featured exclusively in our magazine Science in Society.

My own theory of the organism belongs in this sweeping paradigm change. It is based on how organisms actually make a living, what they do that sustains them (and provides for future generations). The organism is a good model of a sustainable system. It runs on cycles of activities coupled together for maximum reciprocity and mutual benefit (not competition), and minimising waste and dissipation because both materials and energy are recycled within [1, 2, 8, 9] (Sustainable Systems as Organisms?.ISIS scientific publication; Thermodynamics of Organisms and Sustainable Systems, SiS 36).

On a recent trip to China, I discovered that the Chinese peasants have perfected an incredibly productive and sustainable farming system based on the same principles: turning wastes into resources to maximise internal input and minimize waste exported to the environment. They call it circular economy. It supports ten times as many people per hectare than monoculture farming.

We have proposed a “zero-emission”, “zero-waste” food and energy Dream Farm 2 that can combine all the sustainable, renewable energies together with circular economy farming that can phase out fossil fuels altogether and demonstrate in a concrete way the new paradigm at work [10] (see the latest version: How to Beat Climate Change & Be Food and Energy Rich - Dream Farm 2).

Please let me know if you wish to set up such a farm, and we’d be happy to work with you.

Article first published 04/10/07


  1. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, 1993.
  2. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, 2nd edition, World Scientific, 1998, reprinted 1999,2002, 2003, 2005, 2006.
  3. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream of Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Third World Network, Gateway Books, MacMillan, Continuum, Penang, Malaysia, Bath, UK, Dublin, Ireland, New York, USA, 1998, 1999, 2007 (reprint with extended Introduction), translated into many languages.
  4. Ho MW. Living with the Fluid Genome, ISIS & TWN, London and Penang, 2003.
  5. Ho MW. Life beyond the Central Dogma series, Science in Society 24, 4-13, 2004.
  6. Burcher S and Ho MW. Scientists and MEPs for a GM-Free Europe. Science in Society 35, 21-26, 2007.
  7. Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders PT, Bravo E and Gala R. Which Energy? 2006 ISIS Energy Report, Institute of Science in Society, London, 2006.
  8. Ho MW and Ulanowicz R. Sustainable systems as organisms? BioSystems 2005, 39-51.
  9. Ho MW. Thermodynmics of organisms and sustainable systems. Science in Society 36 (to appear).
  10. Ho MW. How to beat climate change & be food and energy rich – Dream Farm 2. ISIS report, 10 July 2007.

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