Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 22

Submission by GeneWatch UK

  GeneWatch UK is a not-for-profit group that monitors developments in genetic technologies from a public interest, environmental protection and animal welfare perspective. GeneWatch believes people should have a voice in whether or how these technologies are used and campaigns for safeguards for people, animals and the environment. We work on all aspects of genetic technologies—from GM crops and foods to genetic testing of humans.

GeneWatch welcomes the opportunity to input to the Committee's inquiry. We are currently completing an investigation of the corporate shaping of science, innovation and the economy in the UK and Europe and our submission draws on some of the findings of this investigation (which has not yet been published).


  Major Government and EU investments in science have been driven by a political commitment to the knowledge-based economy (KBE), in which science and technology—particularly biotechnology—are seen as the key drivers for economic growth. However, there is a stark contrast between this political commitment and the failure of the biotech industry to deliver economic benefit.

GeneWatch UK's research suggests that the idea of the KBE is failing in at least four ways:

    —  It is not delivering, and cannot deliver, the promised revolutions in health, agriculture and sustainability. Indeed, in many situations, the false solutions that it offers may undermine alternative approaches and create significant opportunity costs.

    —  It is not delivering, and cannot deliver, a "race to the top" for Europe's economies.

    —  By locking "knowledge" into intellectual property, it fixes old ideas (such as the idea of genes as major risk factors for common diseases) and seeks to market them, distorting research priorities and promoting misinformation, rather than stimulating creativity. Patenting also prioritises "technologies of control", designed to monopolise markets and maximise profits. People are unlikely to accept such technologies as of benefit to them.

    —  The uncritical promotion of (often barely credible) technical solutions for major social problems, combined with the loss of independent expertise to inform policy and regulation, is undermining democratic values and trust in institutions.

  The questions posed by the Committee cannot be answered without radically re-thinking the relationship between science and society. This requires a major overhaul of the research funding system, including:

    —  More democratic decisions about research funding priorities;

    —  Greater accountability and scrutiny of research investment decisions: including economic assessments and appraisals;

    —  Public engagement in setting research questions and priorities;

    —  More funding for research which does not necessarily benefit large corporations but may deliver other benefits;

    —  Fundamental reform of the science advisory system and the system for providing incentives for and assessment of research, including major reform of the patents system;

    —  Funding for "counter-expertise" and multi-disciplinary research;

    —  A commitment to take public opinions into account in decisions about science and innovation.

Q1.  Whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council for Science and Technology put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making and whether there should be a Department for Science.

Q3.  Whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy, and how the success of any consultation is assessed.

  1.  These questions cannot be answered without considering how decisions are being made about what science and engineering projects are supported, and the relationship between science and society. GeneWatch agrees with the researchers on science and innovation policy who argue that a radical revision of this relationship is required, which reviews past experiences properly and reflects in a fundamental way on how to support more democratically and technically robust science and technology policies.[57],[58]

2.  Science and engineering play important roles in society, but many other factors and types of knowledge are also important in formulating Government policy. In addition, progress in science depends on specialisation, but this can also lead to ignorance about alternative approaches and/or the potential unintended consequences of particular scientific assumptions or applications. Some engineers argue that the present intellectual and professional division of labour and the knowledge infrastructure built on it together prevent genuine solutions by promoting an "end of pipe" approach to dealing with problems and relying too much on specialists who are often unaware of the undesired effects of their decisions.[59] Others have argued that treating science as an instrument of policy, serving the interests of government and commerce, neglects the important "non-instrumental" roles of science: including the creation of critical scenarios and world pictures; the stimulation of rational attitudes; and the production of enlightened practitioners and independent experts.[60]

  3.  GeneWatch UK's research, the main outcomes of which are described below, suggests that the Government's commitment to the so-called "knowledge-based economy" is distorting research priorities (towards what is patentable, rather than what is scientifically valid or useful); changing the nature of science itself and what is considered "knowledge"; and undermining access to independent advice on science and technology—especially the ability to assess claims about the benefits to be delivered as a result of investments in particular innovation strategies. Members of the Council for Science and Technology and other Government science advisors represent a narrow range of interests, dominated by a strong commitment to biotechnology, nuclear power and surveillance technologies. Unless this expertise is broadened, attempts to bring advice on science and technology closer to the heart of government will only further erode public trust in Government science policy and faith in its claims about the benefits of investing in the "knowledge-based economy".

Q2.  How Government formulates science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system).

  4.  The idea of the knowledge-based economy has become a key driver of research investment in Britain, Europe and worldwide and underpins how Government formulates science and engineering policy. The "knowledge" embedded in a product is seen as adding value to it and is protected by intellectual property rights, which gives value to this knowledge and allows it to be traded rather than freely used (by applying protectionism to "knowledge" rather than to goods). Within the European Union, the advocates of this approach argue that Europe, with its scientific institutions and capacity to produce knowledge, will be able to capitalise on this globally and sustain Europe's economy in the face of the threat from China, India and other developing countries that are rapidly industrialising and where manufacturing costs are low.

5.  Supporters of the knowledge-based economy (KBE), claim that science and technology will be a major driver of economic growth and at the same time deliver technical solutions to health, agricultural, social and environmental problems, within Europe and world-wide.

  6.  Biosciences and biotechnology—particularly human and plant genomics—are seen as central to the knowledge-based economy, as are information and communication technologies. For example the EU's Competitiveness in Biotechnology Advisory Group (CBAG) states:[61]"Both during and since the Lisbon and Stockholm summits, biotechnology has been clearly identified as the backbone of a knowledge-based economy, a vital driver of Europe's competitiveness". Along with new genetically engineered products—including plants, animals and micro-organisms—"genetic information" is seen as a commodity. In Britain in particular, access to human genetic information, obtained from patients in the National Health Service (NHS) and linked to electronic medical records, is seen as a key selling point to attract the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

  7.  However, there is a stark contrast between the political commitment to biotechnology as a driver for growth and the failure of the biotech industry to deliver economic benefit.[62],[63]

  8.  GeneWatch's investigation highlights major weaknesses in this policy framework. This does not mean that biotechnologies and the biosciences cannot contribute to health, agricultural or sustainability objectives, or to the economy. However, it does mean that it is necessary to re-think the whole idea of the "knowledge-based bio-economy" (KBBE) and the knowledge-based economy in general.

  9.  We conclude that the vision of the knowledge-based economy is deeply flawed because it is based on the idea of knowledge as a commodity that can be patented and then bought and sold. In this system, both social and scientific tests of what is considered knowledge are abandoned in favour of valuation by the market. Knowledge becomes defined by whatever can be commercialised and alternative understandings or approaches are dismissed as unscientific or anti-progress. In adopting this approach, policy makers undermine the knowledge and debate on which they and society at large rely to make informed decisions and to make realistic and informed appraisals of techno-scientific claims. This can lead to political entrapment in particular innovation strategies as a result of factors which include: the preference for advance over retreat (the tendency "to favour the investor over the protestor"); the digging in of commitments at the outset of risky, complex and costly projects; the neglect of externalities; and the entrenchment of political commitments and sunk costs, leading to an escalation of commitments ("good money thrown after bad").[64] This creates an innovation system in which political commitments are "dug in", in contrast to one in which many diverse and creative alternatives are being pursued.[65]

  10.  The main findings of GeneWatch UK's investigation are that:

    1. Major investment decisions in R&D and in research infrastructure are being made by the EU and by the UK Government without due scientific diligence or cost-benefit analysis. "Optimism bias"—leading to significant underestimates of social, environmental and economic risks—is rife. Yet the UK Treasury does not apply its rules for economic assessment or appraisal to major R&D investments, unlike other major infrastructure projects.

    2. To help drive the knowledge-based economy, expertise from a narrow range of industries seen as key to the KBE has been integrated into the scientific institutions, government departments and research councils where research funding decisions are made. Industry representatives appointed to research funding boards are likely to influence research strategies and choose research priorities from their own perspective. This is taken to a new level by the European Technology Platforms, where research strategies in food, health and agriculture are being determined by the "vision" of the relevant commercial sectors.

    3. Although many major R&D investments involve public-private partnerships—including those developed by the biotech industry as part of the EU's European Technology Platforms—the risks are largely borne by the general public and the taxpayer.

    4. A small number of enthusiasts for particular approaches dominate the decision-making processes for R&D investments. These individuals often have vested interests in promoting these approaches. Barely credible claims are often made that the development of genetics and genomics, including GM crops and large-scale genetic databases, will eliminate problems as diverse as hunger, cancer, crime, obesity and adverse drug reactions. Typically no independent analysis of these claims is made and critics are dismissed as "anti-science".

    5. Political commitments to particular approaches and the role of vested interests are often hidden and rarely open to proper public scrutiny. For example, the UK Government and the EU's DG Research have both endorsed a paradigm shift in medicine to personalised prevention based on genetic risk prediction. This approach has been variously supported by the tobacco, nuclear, chemical, food and pharmaceutical industries as a means to expand the market for medicines and functional foods and to avoid controls on unhealthy products and pollution, by promoting genetic explanations for cancer and obesity. There is no evidence that it is of benefit to health or likely to be cost-effective.

    6. The research funding system encourages the patenting, promotion and marketing of scientific discoveries, even though most published research findings are false.[66] This undermines the concept of the scientific method as a means of formulating and testing hypotheses with experimental evidence, and replaces it with a system that encourages exaggerated claims, including to policy makers and investors and to the public via the media.

    7. Science and innovation has become increasingly disconnected from the users of research. This is most striking in food and farming research, where agricultural colleges and traditional plant breeding have largely disappeared and research priorities are driven by what can be patented by commercial seed companies or "add value" for food manufacturers.

    8. There are likely to be significant opportunity costs as a result of poor investments made via the current research funding system. Billions of pounds and euros are being spent on ineffective or spurious solutions to major social, environmental, health and economic problems: including hunger and obesity.

    9. The public is becoming increasingly alienated and disillusioned and is sceptical that research priorities are being set in the public interest or that they will deliver economic benefits. For example, the Science Horizons project found that it is widely assumed that policy-makers in government and big business are not candid with citizens and that technology is being developed by industry and/or government in order to make profits, rather than in response to societal needs.

Q4.  The case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs updating.

  11.  The Haldane Principle implies that researchers are best placed to determine detailed priorities; that government's role is to set the over-arching strategy; and that research councils are guardians of the independence of science from too much government interference. It is often cited to state that scientists rather than politicians should determine how research funds are spent. However, the Haldane Principle does not reflect reality because the entire system of research funding is now shaped by institutional commitments to the knowledge-based economy.

  12.  GeneWatch believes that research funding decisions are inevitably political decisions, about how to best spend public money, which institutions to support and what incentives to provide to researchers in academia and industry. These decisions have economic consequences and potentially affect the lives of billions of people, because they influence what questions are asked and which approaches are adopted to tackle the problems that we face. Research funding decisions in food, health and agriculture can literally be life or death decisions and can also impact profoundly on the environment and the lives of future generations. [67],[68],[69],[70],[71],[72],[73]

  13.  Research funding decisions need to take into account what research is considered scientifically "doable". But they are not—and cannot be—made in some pure "scientific" way. History shows that such decisions are always shaped by politics and by vested interests:[74] the challenge is how to improve the system to make better, more accountable decisions.

  14.  Motivations for researchers include curiosity, reputation, career, research money for the creation and development of a research team; and personal income.[75] Building individual and collective careers creates scientific "bandwagons" that promote further investment in particular research agendas.[76] Since 1997, the system of incentives for researchers has been strongly influenced by the Government's commitment to the knowledge-based economy, as defined and promoted by the OECD.[77] Patents, based on science not validated by other academics, have become part of the equation that measures prestige, and therefore career advancement and funding.[78] The scope of patents has also broadened to include what previously would have been regarded as discoveries rather than inventions (including plants and human genes). Other factors which influence what research gets done include academic disciplines and hierarchy. For example, in the past, medical research was largely done by physician-scientists who also treated patients, but this changed with the explosion of molecular biology in the 1970s, when clinical and basic research started to separate.[79] There has been a marked decline in the numbers of trainees and professionals in physiology and pharmacology as the more reductionist disciplines of molecular biology and genetics have gained in prestige and influence.[80]

  15.  Because scientists are in a fierce competition to maintain and increase public support and funding they routinely hype the practical applications of their work, yet peer reviewers do not assess the credibility of the claims made for the future benefits that might arise from the research.[81] Hype is often influenced by commercial interests, is reported uncritically by the media, and distorts public expectations and research priorities.[82],[83],[84],[85],[86],[87],[88]

  16.  Biotechnology became a business when the knowledge emerging from scientific research became Intellectual Property (IP) that was valued and could be bought and sold: however this business model has not been successful, and the expansion of the patent system is increasingly widely criticised for being counter-productive to industry as well as raising serious ethical concerns.[89],[90],[91] "Knowledge" that is patented—the key measure of the knowledge-based economy—does not represent a scientific consensus about what has been established, or meet traditional definitions of knowledge as established by the "scientific method". For example, so-called "genetic information" is mostly wrong[92] but this genetic misinformation is now being marketed directly to the public, with potentially serious implications for public health.[93]

  17.  The current system of research funding, in the context of the knowledge-based economy, means that—with some exceptions—most public research funding tends to follow the research investment strategies set by vested interests linked to powerful industrial sectors, rather than seeking the most effective ways to tackle serious problems such as hunger, obesity and environmental degradation. For example, the food industry's research priorities are not necessarily those most likely to be effective in tackling the current epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease,[94] and important gaps in health research reflect biases within the health research economy which mean that research that is unlikely to be profitable or is of little scientific interest tends to be neglected.[95]

  18.  Closer links between universities and communities at a local or regional level; and the development of science policies at regional level—or the level of the devolved administrations—could play a part in making decisions more accountable. However, updating the Haldane Principle is an inadequate response to the pervasive effects of the Government's commitment to the KBE. A major re-think of science policy is needed. The issues that need to be addressed include:

    —  Who defines the public interest?

    —  What mechanisms and institutions are needed to attempt to deliver public benefit from science and technology?

    —  How can "blue skies" research and the "non-instrumental" roles of science be safeguarded, including the ability to assess and debate techno-scientific claims?

    —  Who should bear the financial risk of research and innovation?

    —  How should research priorities be decided?

Q5.  Engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy.

Q6.  The role of GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders in determining UK science and engineering policy.

Q7.  How government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised.

  19.  The Government's commitment to the knowledge-based economy has major implications for the relationship between science, democracy and the economy as forms of good hitherto seen primarily as non-economic resources (culture, talent, knowledge, social relations) become forms of capital.[96] The notion of public-private partnership in the knowledge economy presumes that the interests of the market, state and citizens are the same and that no differences or conflicts of interest exist. However, conflicts between different interests are pervasive in the bioeconomy, and wealth creation is often directed at narrow, vested interests, rather than society as a whole. For example, there are strongly conflicting views about the future of food and agriculture, which imply radically different research agendas.[97] In addition, as the Harvard economist Gary Pisano has shown, the model of science as a business has been a failure: profitability in the medical biotech industry has been flat for over 30 years and without the biggest biotech firm, Amgen, the industry has made steady losses throughout its history, even before the current economic crisis.[98]

20.  When the Government developed its policies on the knowledge economy, as a key element of the Third Way, Anthony Giddens stated: "Science and technology used to be seen as outside politics, but this view has become obsolete… Decision-making in these contexts cannot be left to the "experts" but must involve politicians and citizens".[99] However, although there has been some (belated) recognition of the need to engage the public more in decisions about science and technology—reflected, for example, in the 2004 launch of the "Sciencewise" programme—this has not yet impacted significantly on science and innovation policy or research priorities.

  21.  In GeneWatch UK's view, the Government's commitment to the "knowledge-based economy" and its failure to make transparent and accountable decisions in the area of investments in science and technology underpins the "striking trust deficit" identified in the Science Horizons Deliberative Panel report,[100] in which some people saw expert priorities for research investments as inevitably not the same as those of the average citizen. The 2007 Science Horizons report states that the discussions about science and technology "brought to the surface numerous deep seated social concerns and policy themes".[101] These included anxieties about privacy and surveillance, erosion of the human dimension in services and relationship building, future employment, trustworthiness of authorities, safety, fair access to technology and the potential for technologies to be misused. The concern that technology is being developed by industry and/or government in order to make profits, rather than in response to societal needs was "a fairly common theme" and some people expressed feeling a lack of control over the direction in which science and technology is heading. Trust in expert authorities in the abstract tended to be low and there was "pervasive anxiety" about potential abuse of technologies. It is also "widely assumed that policy-makers in government and big business are not candid with citizens".

  22.  The European Commission's Bureau of European Policy Advisors 2005 report of a qualitative study of the attitudes of EU citizens towards the renewed Lisbon Strategy also found: "…that attitudes on the subject are extremely variable. They tend to be positive in some countries, at least for some population categories, but often negative, sceptical or reserved for the majority of other persons questioned."[102] People were doubtful about the credibility of investment in the knowledge-based economy as a recovery plan for a Europe that had failed over the course of the previous five years and: "Responsibility for the mediocre situation was mainly placed with political leaders or governments and their erroneous policy choices and their mismanagement of public money".

  23.  Many researchers have concluded that to address the dislocation of science from the public, there needs to be more civil society engagement with setting the research agenda and science and innovation policies. Participation is generally seen as furthering two aims—more democratic decisions and better ones. However, it is not a panacea and the notion of upstream engagement is a contested concept giving rise to its own dilemmas and tensions. Participation, whether upstream or not, is influenced by power dynamics and can either open up or close down debate.

  24.  GeneWatch UK was recently involved in a EC-funded project which involved people from civil society organisations and academics in a study about participation in science.[103] Based on evidence gathered by interviewing members of civil society organisations (CSOs) in ten European countries the research found that, contrary to popular perception, CSOs that were engaged in debates about the development of agricultural biotechnology are not anti-science, but felt that current policy-making frameworks are disproportionately orientated towards the co-operation between science and industry, leaving other actors either under-represented or not represented at all. Although the original intention of the project was to focus on "good practice" in participation, the study found that CSOs believe themselves to be operating within a structure that fundamentally denies them opportunities for meaningful participation. The report identifies ten principles for effective participation.

  25.  In GeneWatch's view the issues identified in this submission can only be addressed by a major overhaul of the research funding system, which requires:

    —  More democratic decisions about research funding priorities and a more diverse research agenda;

    —  Greater accountability and scrutiny of research investment decisions: including economic assessments and appraisals, scrutiny of scientific and technical assumptions, and active steps to prevent political "entrapment" in research agendas based on false assumptions and misleading claims;

    —  Public engagement in setting research questions and priorities, including consideration of a variety of alternative approaches to addressing problems;

    —  Public engagement in research itself, involving closer co-operation between universities, communities and civil society organisations (for example, GeneWatch UK is currently involved in the EC-funded project "Facilitating Alternative Agro-Food Networks", which is an example of co-operative research[104]);

    —  More funding for research which does not necessarily benefit large corporations but may deliver other benefits including economic ones (for example, public health research, and research into improving organic and low-input farming methods);

    —  Fundamental reform of the science advisory system and the system for providing incentives for and assessment of research, including major reform of the patents system;

    —  Funding for "counter-expertise" and multi-disciplinary research which can identify long-term scientific uncertainties and regulatory gaps;

    —  A commitment to take public opinions into account in decisions about science and innovation, including methods to ensure full consideration of the broader social and economic issues associated with adopting particular technologies.

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