Entretien avec le lanceur d’alerte Ignacio Chapela

vendredi 1 octobre 2010






Ignacio Chapela

Ignacio Chapela

– You were a researcher, you became – without looking for it – a kind of David versus Goliath, involved in the battle of the South against the North, of peasants against seeds transnationals. In other words, you are now the incarnation of what is a whistleblower. Is it a « heavy load » or are you claiming it loudly ?

First I must declare something very important : I am only one of very many people who find themselves in the cross-hairs of the corporate machinery. The only difference of my case is that I survived, more or less, their attack. Many others have not fared with the same luck that I had : people die from this, many others have lost their jobs and with this their capacity to be heard in public. So it is not a question of heroics, or one in which I (or any other individual) displayed unusual powers (as I think David is supposed to have done against Goliath). The reality seems to be more and more that we are all really more like a swarm of many people who oppose what has happened to our science, to our environment, to our society. The privilege (and the burden) is on those of us who are lucky to have received the charge of representing the public.

There is indeed a heavy load associated with what happened to me. You are right, I did not look for it, I simply responded to the situation with what I thought was an honest response. Having said that, I did not stumble into the situation ; as I developed as an adult scientist and public thinker, I sought to place myself in the position where my knowledge mattered for society, knowing full well that this could lead to trouble. I think it is correct to say that when the world is working in a sick and destructive manner, a measure of relevance in the work of the public thinker is how uncomfortable her positions feel within that world. It would be a sad indictment of a person if his work was adopted with open arms by such a sick and destructive world.

The added element in my case is that I received my job from the public, not from the institution which I criticized : when the time came to make a decision about whether I should have a tenured professorial position or not, the secret workings of the institution gave a clear and stubborn ’no’€ for an answer. I only got to keep my job because there was such a strong public outcry over this answer, which eventually, after 7 years of battle, was turned into a ’yes’. I therefore feel much more encumbered by the public nature of my position, and feel every day that I must live up to that.


The publication of your study confirming the presence of transgenic DNA in Mexican maize « cost » you a lot in respect to your academic position and career. Which mechanisms or procedures could be implemented to protect people like you ?

It would be easy to write a long treatise on the possibilities in an ideal world :

1. Establish strict procedures to avoid conflict of interest and other sources of undue influence by people and institutions with profit (or political) interests.

2. Protect the workings of the university from the corrupting forces of profit-making and secrecy.

3. Include citizens who are recognized in their public dedication in decisions related to hiring and retaining our experts.

4. Make sure that ’experts’ do not acquire influence that goes beyond those actions for which they can be held responsible in public, and that people making other decisions are transparently representing the interest of the public…

…and so on.

But the state of the matter at this point, in 2010, is such that very few spaces are left where these lofty principles could be applied. Profit-oriented industry and governments are much too powerful to allow even a small token of public-interest in the workings of science. Under these circumstances, I believe that it is really very important to establish networks of solidarity islands where dissent and critical thinking in the public interest can survive while the madness of corporate, late capitalism subsides. I have no doubt that this situation, the ’fever’ of super-heated capitalism, will cool down sooner or later ; the question is whether we will have anything left of the edifice built upon the massive foundations of the Enlightenment.

– How this unexpected experience changed your perception of the global research system ? How the behaviour of your colleagues changed after this « episode » ?

The research system and in general the system of critical analysis that one should call ’science’ has been hijacked by short-sighted and wildly a-critical forces, mostly driven by the needs and the giddiness of ’progress’-driven capitalism. The consequences of this trend are disastrous, as can be seen most clearly in the Gulf of Mexico today : BP shunned its own best-thinkers because they stood in the way of profit, and the direct material consequence of this move is seen floating on the water of the Gulf. You can see the same process at work in many other fields, but especially in Biology, where we have been ’dumbed-down’ by the loss of broad areas of expertise which countervened the profit imperative.

– According to you, which role could whistleblowers play on international solidarity or on human rights issues ?

A ’whistleblower’ is just a normal critical thinker who finds himself in the wrong context, where his understanding goes counter to the interest of those around him. The whistleblower also has the added quality (or ’defect’) of making his understanding public. If this definition is right, then whistleblowers should be treasured players in society, especially in times of difficulty, since they are the ones who can help identify areas where trouble is coming from. Sometimes they can also suggest solutions to those troubles. But a whistleblower’s work is only as good as the willingness of the society around her to listen, appreciate and protect the uncomfortable message and its messenger. Without that social context, the whistleblower is useless and sadly suicidal. It is really the work of society that can allow whistleblowing to flourish a healthy society would ideally have many of these characters, all happy and valued ; such a society may even decide to have protected places where ’whistleblowing’ could be fostered and supported : they are called universities. A world which strives to live by reason and self-reflection cannot possibly exist without these spaces.

– Do you have any other thoughts on the issue that seem important to you ?

I want to say that there are now several networks, mostly of scientists, who are taking upon themselves to protect each other against the ravages of late capitalistic rule. You find them in each continent, normally as international solidarity networks. Although they exist in the age of the internet, these networks are resorting back to the practices of those early scientists in the 13th Century to give safe heaven to brethren critics of a society at the painful end of a chapter in history.

À voir

Ignacio Chapela is a microbial ecologist and mycologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

A short part of this interview was published in Altermondes, n°23, September 2010.

The picture was found there : http://www.thefutureoffood.com/