Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


A crisis of trust

  1.1  Society's relationship with science is in a critical phase. By "science" we mean the biological and physical sciences and their technological applications. On the one hand, there has never been a time when the issues involving science were more exciting, the public more interested, or the opportunities more apparent. On the other hand, public confidence in scientific advice to Government has been rocked by a series of events, culminating in the BSE fiasco; and many people are deeply uneasy about the huge opportunities presented by areas of science including biotechnology and information technology, which seem to be advancing far ahead of their awareness and assent. In turn, public unease, mistrust and occasional outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists themselves.

Science and uncertainty

  1.2  In scientific research, the frontiers of knowledge are advanced in most cases by observation and by the experimental testing of hypotheses. Every scientific field relies to a large extent on observation or experimental testing of some kind.

  1.3  There are many things which are now known for certain, e.g. that the earth moves in orbit round the sun. Even in areas of certainty, uncertainty may be encountered, either when efforts are made to refine knowledge, or because the system in question is inherently complex and chaotic, e.g. the weather. Nonetheless, people rely on the certainty of most scientific facts.

  1.4  Where science is advancing rapidly, however, as is currently the case in genetics, much is uncertain, and there is much room for disagreement among experts. Scientific pronouncements in such areas cannot be relied upon in the same way.

  1.5  Science embraces engineering, technology and medicine. In all these disciplines there are elements of pure science; medicine, for example, takes in physiology, pharmacology and genetics. Most science, however, is applied to real-life problems, and is used to design and produce things that are of use, for good or for ill. When science is applied, the problem of uncertainty may be compounded by issues of ethics, economics, social implications and public acceptability.

  1.6  Moreover there is a recognised problem for scientific assessment of the safety or environmental effects of new technologies, namely that their prior testing before release can never be complete. Questions always remain, for example about performance and safety in different parts of the world, under different conditions of regulation, maintenance, operation etc. Risk assessment is often based on extrapolations from laboratory testing on animals, leaving uncertainties which cannot be resolved until widespread use has occurred and effects on people and the environment have been observed. Thus full-scale commercial deployment still involves testing, and monitoring, of safety and risk.

Trust and ambivalence

  1.7  People take for granted the contributions of medicine, engineering and technology to the quality of their lives. 20 years ago, the outcome of hip and knee operations was uncertain. Doctors and engineers have made great progress in the development of these operations and the man-made replacement joints that are inserted. The same co-operation and human-inspired technical advance has evolved X-ray, ultrasound, kidney machines, incubators to save the lives of very premature babies, and numerous aids to the handicapped—wheelchairs, hearing aids, puffers for asthmatics etc.—so that the length and quality of life has improved enormously in the century just ended.

  1.8  At home, people take for granted piped gas and water, and electricity, whose applications remove drudgery from life. Carpets are no longer beaten by hand, milk no longer cooled in wet pottery containers, washing no longer scrubbed, wrung and mangled. Vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, telephones, television and radio, and many other everyday devices, are taken for granted. At the beginning of the last century they did not exist; motorcars and aeroplanes were only just being invented. After the Second World War many people were frightened of flying; now most people take it for granted in planning their holidays. Every new invention has to go through an uncertain phase when only the courageous use it, in order to gather experience for it to be used to the benefit of everybody.

  1.9  Yet we have received evidence that in this country, while science from some quarters and for some purposes - notably human health - enjoys public confidence and commendation, other kinds of science and scientist are rated very low. We set out this evidence in Chapter 2 of this report.

Does it matter?

  1.10  Does this crisis of confidence matter? In our view, and that of many of our witnesses, it matters greatly, for a number of reasons. On the positive side, the future wealth and welfare of society depends critically upon the enthusiasm of young people to pursue scientific careers. As the seminal White Paper Realising our Potential of 1993[1] put it in its opening chapter, "The understanding and application of science are fundamental to the fortunes of modern nations. Science, technology and engineering are intimately linked with progress across the whole range of human endeavour: educational, intellectual, medical, environmental, social, economic and cultural...The history of the United Kingdom has shown the intimate connection between free trade, the application of science to tradeable products, and national prosperity...Science and engineering also make a most important contribution to improved public services and the quality of life."

  1.11  Although scientists are a minority of the population, democratic citizenship in a modern society depends, among other things, on the ability of citizens to comprehend, criticise and use scientific ideas and claims. As has already been observed, the applications of science raise, or feed into, complex ethical and social questions, which government and industry must handle in ways which command public confidence. At present many of these questions arise in the biosciences (e.g. the issues raised by cloning, genetic testing, gene patents, assisted reproduction and xenotransplantation[2]). At the same time resistance, whether well-founded or misguided, on the part of the public whether as citizens or as consumers, may inhibit technological progress. Topical examples are genetically modified ("GM") food, which, following the outcry over unsegregated soya and maize, is being widely boycotted by United Kingdom consumers and retailers; "therapeutic cloning", which is currently subject to a moratorium pending a report to Government from an advisory group[3]; food irradiation[4]; and deep-sea disposal of offshore installations in waters around Europe[5].

  1.12  Public hostility to a product or process may drive industrial investment in production or research overseas (CBI p 277, Ac Med Sci p 245, UCL p 419). Even if the hostility is justified, this may merely transfer the activity to a less well-regulated jurisdiction. If it is ill-founded, British jobs will be lost to no purpose. Hostility may also encourage the "brain drain" of talented individual scientists (BBSRC p 259)—though we are not convinced that public attitudes are as significant a factor as levels of remuneration or support for research.

  1.13  Public misunderstanding may lead to technology being rejected; it may also lead to technology being abused. For example, patients persist in demanding antibiotics, and farmers persist in using them, inappropriately, thereby contributing to the development of resistance among bacteria[6]; and people persist in overdosing on vitamin B6, apparently because they cannot believe that a vitamin can be harmful (May Q 12).

  1.14  The state of the relationship between science and society is therefore of importance to society; and it is also of great importance to the scientific community itself. Scientists are part of society, and work in a social context. On the one hand, scientists have morality and purpose like everyone else, and, like other groups in society, are generally motivated to contribute constructively in one way or another to human wellbeing. On the other, scientists must work within the law and within their budgets; and, in a democracy, public attitudes condition both the statutory framework and public research spending—though their direct impact on United Kingdom public spending is much less than in the USA (see Appendix 3).

  1.15  These are not novel issues. In the early nineteenth century, the Luddites famously resisted the first stirrings of the industrial revolution. Later developments such as electricity and the railways aroused strong feelings. In the twentieth century, approval of scientific and technological advance has repeatedly been accompanied by anxiety about its larger ethical, social and political implications. An almost triumphalist attitude during the 1940s and 1950s can perhaps be attributed to the role of technology in winning the Second World War. This gave way in the 1960s and 1970s to growing concerns about health and the environment. Since then, the names of places such as Seveso, Bhopal, Flixborough, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have come to be associated with the very real environmental and human risks involved in high-technology industry. Today, fear of such risks is a major feature of public attitudes towards technology across the industrialised world.

  1.16  Science is currently advancing so fast on so many fronts that society today can fairly claim to face a special challenge. Examples are the areas of genetics and biomedicine, solid state physics, space, and information technology. The pace is being forced by both scientific opportunity and commercial pressure; and the challenge is multiplied by ever-increasing scientific specialisation. In some areas, the applications of science follow much more slowly. In other areas, however, the distance between research and application is short, and there is less and less time for risk assessment and the public deliberation of possible implications.

  1.17  The challenge is being faced. The golden age of popular science was surely the Victorian era, when Faraday lectured at the Royal Institution and the Great Exhibition led to the establishment of the national museums in South Kensington. But today too the United Kingdom is enjoying a wealth of science popularisers and of public-understanding activities. Such activity was encouraged and catalysed by the 1985 Bodmer Report[7], which declared, "It is clearly a part of each scientist's professional responsibility to promote the public understanding of science". This report led, among other things, to the establishment of COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, by the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1986. It was followed by the 1993 White Paper Realising our Potential, which has already been quoted, and the 1995 Wolfendale Report[8].

  1.18  There is also increasing interest, and a small but growing body of experience, in scientific and official circles, in moving beyond simply giving information. Engaging the wider public in dialogue about what science could and should be doing was a theme advanced by many of our witnesses. Yet none of this has averted the present situation in which, for instance, a middle-market tabloid newspaper can summarise a report on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in plant biotechnology with the headline "Mutant crops could kill you", and a major food retailer can seek to attract custom with posters proclaiming "We hate GM food".

The approach of this report

  1.19  Since science's relationship with United Kingdom society is under strain, and since this is of the greatest importance to both the scientific community and the nation as a whole, the rest of this report looks at the roots of the problem and what can be done about it. We recommend ways to improve the dialogue between the two sides:

  1.20  We have been very conscious throughout our inquiry of the public uproar about GM crops and foods. It was not however that controversy which primarily prompted this study. What persuaded us to take a hard look at the relationship between science and society was our own major study, conducted in 1998-99, on Management of Nuclear Waste[9]. Our report on that subject considered public acceptability in Chapter 5, touching on the following issues:

  • The difference between active endorsement, and more passive acquiescence.
  • NIMBYism—people's capacity to accept something in general, and yet object when it threatens to touch them directly ("Not In My Back Yard").
  • The importance of public trust in institutions.
  • The capacity of those in authority to misread public attitudes and values.
  • The complexity of public attitudes and values, and their capacity to change, particularly when worked upon by the media.
  • Factors which heighten public concern about risk: lack of personal control; difficulty of setting risk against benefit; special "dread factors"; and unacknowledged or understated uncertainty.
  • The difficulties of numerical risk assessment.
  • Different ways of exploring public attitudes and building public trust: stakeholder dialogues, the People's Panel, consensus conferences, citizens' juries, deliberative polls.

  1.21  Our main conclusions in that report were:

  • Any strategy for nuclear waste must have both national and local acceptance by the public if it is to succeed. Gaining that acceptance may take 20 years.
  • Openness is crucial, though it is not a panacea and is not without cost.
  • The place where public acceptance is given authoritative expression is Parliament.

This report explores some of the same themes across the whole range of science and technology.

  1.22  In this report we do not take a position on nuclear waste, GM food, or any other particular issue of current controversy. The purpose of this report is rather to examine the processes whereby such positions are taken, and to make recommendations to improve those processes.

  1.23  This inquiry has taken this Committee further than it usually goes into the realms of social science. We have been told on all sides, and we believe it to be true, that "hard science" is paying increasing attention to insights from social science. The particular issues of this report, public understanding of and engagement with science, have been the subject of increasing study by social scientists over the last 20 years.

  1.24  In Chapter 6 we consider the crucial role of science education in schools, which forms many of the attitudes to science which people take into adult life. In Chapter 7 we consider the equally crucial role of the media, which are the main source of information and ideas about science and science-related issues for most adults.

  1.25  The issues examined in this report are not unique to the United Kingdom. We have therefore visited two countries which, while every bit as scientifically sophisticated as ours, offer instructive contrasts in public attitudes and institutional approaches: the USA, where institutional openness is enshrined in law and the public is on the whole more enthusiastic about new technologies; and Denmark, where the public is perhaps even more sceptical than in the United Kingdom and public consultation is a highly developed art. Notes of these visits appear in Appendices 3 and 4.

  1.26  We have not considered the education and training of specialist scientists, nor ways to encourage more young people to follow science careers, except so far as these issues have a bearing on understanding of science by the wider public. They are important issues in their own right, but they are not the subject of this report; they are under detailed consideration in other forums, and our concern here is with the general public rather than the cadre of specialists. Study of the dialogue between individual patients and health professionals has also been excluded, because it is essentially a private matter, and raises a separate set of issues.

  1.27  We hope that this report will complement the current work of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on science advice to Government, and that it will feed into reviews of activities in the area of public understanding of science by the Office of Science and Technology (OST), COPUS and the Wellcome Trust. We hope that it will also inform the current work of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee on innovations in citizen participation in government.

  1.28  This report was prepared by Sub-Committee II, whose members are listed in Appendix 1, with their declarations of interest. They received evidence from a wide range of individuals and organisations, to all of whom we are grateful; they are listed in Appendix 2. The oral evidence received at 13 public hearings, and much of the evidence received in writing, is published in Volume II.

  1.29  We record our gratitude to our Specialist Advisers: John Durant, Assistant Director of the Science Museum and Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College; Brian Wynne, Professor of Science Studies and Research Director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at the University of Lancaster; and Nicola Lindsey of Imperial College. We wish also to express particular gratitude to those who met some of us in the USA and in Denmark, and to the staff of the British Embassies in Washington and Copenhagen and the Consulate General in Boston, and Dr Gary Kass of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), who gave invaluable help in setting up those visits.

  1.30  In the course of our inquiry, a great deal has been said and written on the theme of society's engagement with science. We do not pretend to have taken all of it into account. We are however much indebted to two landmark speeches, whose settings encompass the breadth of the issue and on which we draw in the body of this report.

  1.31  First, on 24 June 1999, Professor Gordon Conway, former Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University and now President of the US Rockefeller Foundation, met the board of directors of Monsanto in Washington DC. Speaking as an advocate for the poor people of the Third World, he challenged the way in which Monsanto sought to develop and market GM crops. He spoke enthusiastically about the achievements of the technology, for example in raising rice yields and quality in poor countries. However, he criticised in blunt terms Monsanto's policies in the face of public suspicion and hostility around the world. What he said[10] had a profound effect on his audience, and an impact on the unfolding story of GM crop technology. We believe that it contains lessons with even wider application.

  1.32  Second, on 30 November 1999, Sir Aaron Klug OM, President of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's academy of science whose Fellows include many of the foremost scientists at work today, addressed the Society's Anniversary Meeting. His speech[11] touched on many of the themes of this report, and put into well-chosen words many of our own conclusions.

  1.33  As our inquiry came to an end, the OST issued a consultation paper on science and innovation strategy. One of the proposed areas for action is to "improve public confidence by creating greater transparency in the regulation of science"; and one of the questions to which responses are invited is, "Do you consider that there is sufficient information available on Government's handling of issues arising from the application of science and the ways that Government receives advice and responds to it?" The whole of our inquiry has been directed at ways to improve public confidence in science and in Government's handling of it, and we have argued above that improving public confidence is essential to any strategy for science and innovation; so this report is our answer to the Government's question, as well as having, we hope, an influence on a wider audience.

  1.34  Throughout this report, recommendations for action are shown in bold type.

1   Cm 2250. Back

2   Transplanting non-human tissue into the human body. Back

3   See our 2nd Report 1999-2000, Meeting with Health and Science Ministers, HL Paper 11. Back

4   See Q 634. Back

5   See Rice/Owen p 384 and our report Decommissioning of Oil and Gas Installations, 6th Report 1995-96, HL Paper 114. Another interesting example is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Its name was changed from "nuclear magnetic resonance" (NMR), which carried the frightening associations of the word "nuclear", and it is sometimes suggested that this change of name assisted public acceptance. Back

6   See our report Resistance to Antibiotics, 7th Report 1997-98, HL Paper 81. Back

7   Public Understanding of Science, Royal Society. Sir Walter Bodmer FRS, who chaired the group which produced it, was Professor of Genetics at Oxford 1970-79 and Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund 1991-96, and has presided over COPUS, the BAAS and the Association for Science Education. Back

8   Report of the Committee to Review the Contribution of Scientists and Engineers to the Public Understanding of Science, Engineering and Technology, October 1995. Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS was Astronomer Royal 1991-95. Back

9   3rd Report 1998-99, HL Paper 41. Back

10   Full text available on the Rockefeller Foundation Web site, Back

11   Printed in Royal Society News December 1999. Back

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