Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


Much interest, little trust

  2.1  Public interest in science in this country is currently high. This is the verdict of a succession of recent survey studies[12]. It is strongly confirmed by the experience of the broadcast media: the BBC's science output is at an all-time high. Another measure is the trade in popular books on science, which is flourishing (Connor Q 194, R Soc p 44).

  2.2  There is, however, an apparent crisis of trust. While people appear to have an appetite for popular science, the paradox is that this is accompanied by increasing scepticism about the pronouncements of scientists on science-related policy issues of all types.

  2.3  Public attitudes to science have been much studied, and the following findings have been brought to our attention. They depend largely on survey data, which are reproduced in more detail in Appendix 6.

  2.4  Survey data come in two kinds:

    (i)  quantitative data, from statistical analysis of surveys of large samples of people, typically in the form of a questionnaire; and

    (ii)  qualitative data, from interpretative analysis of people's responses to more open-ended questions.

  2.5  These two approaches are often combined. We are well aware that survey data must be handled with care. Our analysis of the data is followed by some observations on its method

Durant/Bauer study 1996

  2.6  In a survey commissioned by the OST and the Nuffield Foundation in 1996, Durant and Bauer found that public interest in science was strong[13]. In particular, people's assessments of their own levels of interest in science, technology and medicine were considerably higher than those for sport in the news, politics, and new films (Appendix 6 Table 1).

  2.7  At the same time, they found that general attitudes towards science and technology had become more ambivalent compared with the last time that similar measures were made in 1988. Respondents were asked which among a range of scientists they would have the most confidence in to tell them the truth about BSE and the safety of nuclear power stations. In both cases the rank order by popularity of first choice was:

    (i)A scientist working in a university
    (ii)A scientist working in industry
    (iii)A scientist working in a non-governmental institution
    (iv)(last) A scientist working in a government department
    (Appendix 6 Table 2).

Sir Robert May's evidence

  2.8  Sir Robert May, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and head of the OST, offered us survey data from Eurobarometer suggesting that people in some European countries—notably Denmark and the United Kingdom—have a better understanding of scientific method than people in others; and that people in those countries display less unmitigated enthusiasm for science (Appendix 6 Table 3). This, said Sir Robert, is

    "exactly as it should be, because the more you understand, the more you understand that things are complicated and advance makes for change, which produces unintended consequences" (Q 18; cp Attenborough Q 381, Nat Hist Mus p 62).

Sir Robert's evidence conforms with what we were told when we visited Denmark (see Appendix 4).

  2.9  Sir Robert produced a further table suggesting that the public in the USA is relatively supportive of science, and relatively ignorant of scientific methods (Appendix 6 Table 3). Those whom we met in the USA generally agreed with Sir Robert that the US public is supportive of science, but they attributed this to the role of science and technology in the US economy, rather than to ignorance about the science itself.

  2.10  Sir Robert produced further data from Nature assessing people's attitudes to six particular technologies—genetic testing, new medicines, GM crops, GM food, animal experimentation and xenotransplantation (Appendix 6 Table 4). Respondents were asked in each case whether they regarded the technology as beneficial, whether they regarded it as safe, whether they considered it to be morally right, and whether it should be encouraged. What interested Sir Robert was the degree of difference in the six sets of responses, ranging from enthusiasm for genetic testing and new medicines, to grave doubts about animal experiments and xenotransplantation on grounds of both safety and ethics. This, said Sir Robert, "undercuts any simple notion that people have some general principles they bring to bear"; it shows instead "the robust common sense that people usually bring to bear on these things if they have got a fair degree of information"—an important proviso, as we shall see.

Better Regulation Task Force/MORI study on risk

  2.11  In January 1999, MORI surveyed public attitudes to risk on behalf of the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force, using the People's Panel[14]. The findings (Appendix 6 Table 5) suggest that "government scientists" enjoy less trust than TV, "independent scientists" or pressure groups, but more than private companies or government Ministers; and that TV enjoys more trust than newspapers. The categories of scientists used in this survey, "government" and "independent", are of course problematic; and no question was asked about "scientists" as such.

Public Consultation on the Biosciences

  2.12  This Consultation was launched by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, Minister for Science, in December 1998, to inform a review of the regulation of biotechnology. It involved six two-day workshops and a large-scale survey of members of the People's Panel, all conducted by MORI for the OST.

  2.13  The Consultation revealed a high level of apprehension about cloning, particularly the prospect of human cloning. When respondents were asked about the degree of benefit anticipated from a range of scientific developments, medical advances scored high, but genetic modification and cloning scored low (Appendix 6 Table 6). When asked who should be involved in regulating the biosciences, six groups were named by between 40 and 50 per cent of respondents: a mixed advisory body, an expert advisory body, scientists, the general public, government and environmental groups (Appendix 6 Table 7). Trust in this area was found to be high for doctors (top score), advisory groups, chemists, scientists, and environmental and consumer groups, and low for retailers (bottom score), manufacturers, the media, religious organisations, farmers and government (Appendix 6 Table 7). When deciding whether a biological development is right or wrong, most people said that their main concerns were benefit and safety (Appendix 6 Table 8). According to MORI, "The vast majority gave a response to this spontaneous question—an indication of the degree of thought that they gave to this complex subject" (p 154).

  2.14  One aspect of the survey was a measure of background knowledge among the general public. MORI found a widespread misconception that genes are found only in material which has been genetically modified (p 160). Professor Robert Worcester, Chairman of MORI, compared this with the familiar failure to distinguish between ozone depletion and the "greenhouse effect".

New Scientist/MORI study on animal experiments

  2.15  Animal experimentation is a flashpoint in British society's relationship with science. Animal experimentation has made possible many scientific advances improving both human and animal health, and it is tightly regulated in this country; yet it is also the target of terrorist action in the name of "animal rights".

  2.16  In March 1999, New Scientist commissioned MORI to conduct a quantitative survey of people's attitudes to animal experimentation. When faced with the bare proposition that "Scientists should be allowed to conduct any experiments on live animals", 64 per cent of respondents disagreed, and only 24 per cent agreed. When the question was given a preamble linking animal experimentation with medical research, the numbers were very different: only 41 per cent disagreed, while 45 per cent agreed (Appendix 6 Table 9).

  2.17  MORI comments (p 154) that "the public is receptive to messages explaining or justifying what benefits controversial experiments may bring". The results were analysed against demographic factors, and revealed a higher rate of disapproval among women, but otherwise no clear and consistent differentiation. In oral evidence, Professor Worcester used this to illustrate a difference between attitudes and values: the preamble was able to affect some people's attitudes, but not those of people whose opposition to animal experimentation was based on a "core gut value" (Q 565).

  2.18  Respondents were also asked their views of a matrix of situations: animal experiments conducted for different purposes, from drug testing to toxicity testing of pesticides and cosmetics; experiments on different animals—mice and monkeys; and experiments with different consequences for the animals—no suffering, suffering, and possible death. The results (Appendix 6 Table 9) were highly differentiated, ranging from 83 per cent approval of painless experiments on mice to test drugs for childhood leukaemia, to 92 per cent disapproval of potentially fatal experiments on monkeys to test cosmetics (MORI Q 567).

  2.19  New Scientist[15] commented that people seemed to weigh costs against benefits before deciding whether an animal experiment could be justified. "The experiment's goal and whether animals will suffer in any way are the most important factors".

Royal Society of Chemistry: the Huddersfield experiment

  2.20  In 1985 the Royal Society of Chemistry conducted research into public attitudes to chemistry, by means of small group discussions in London, Luton, Leicester and Huddersfield (Q 432). Some groups were of lay people; others were of teachers, both primary and secondary non-science. Relevant findings included:

    . Of the secondary teachers, the women tended to be more negative than the men. Many of the teachers displayed "green" sympathies.
  • The image of chemistry appeared to be improving, through a combination of better teaching, increasing participation by women, and the growing band of good communicators of science on TV.
  • Those best informed about chemistry were those with children in secondary school; those worst informed included a large proportion of the teachers, especially the primary teachers.
  • "Knowing the applications of chemistry gives the subject relevance and can potentially increase interest in and goodwill towards the subject. Key to the effectiveness of any communications relating to applications is its relevance to the interests, values and concerns of the individual."[17]
  • The chemical industry had a negative image, being associated with pollution and risk. The more responsible attitude of today's large companies was acknowledged by some, but mistrusted by others, with the teachers among the most cynical. The pharmaceutical industry had a better image, being regarded as beneficial, clean, non-toxic and well regulated.
  • People showed awareness of the difficulty of foreseeing the consequences of new developments, and ability to weigh costs against benefits.

  2.21  In the following year, the Society conducted a public relations campaign for chemistry in Huddersfield, and a quantitative survey of public perceptions before and afterwards. To give a brief account of some very detailed findings, the campaign appeared to improve perceptions of the relevance of chemistry to everyday life, but not perceptions of chemistry as a career, nor attitudes to its benefits and disbenefits.

  2.22  In evidence to us, Dr Tom Inch, the Society's General Secretary, drew two conclusions from this exercise, regarding not public perceptions but the process of changing them. First, "In Huddersfield we were still looking for a short-term fix. We have to go for more fundamental solutions to the problem" (Q 432). Secondly, "The local network can actually be much better than the national networks" (Q 433). These are important observations, to which we return below.

More data from MORI

  2.23  Professor Worcester has produced for us a detailed analysis of recent surveys by MORI, for a variety of clients, of British public attitudes to science, scientists and scientific issues (p 150). These contribute to the general picture of low levels of trust, particularly in science associated with government.

  2.24  For example, the proposition "Even the scientists don't really know what they're talking about when it comes to the environment" has received majority assent in a public survey each year since 1993. However, MORI puts the same proposition to a sample of environment journalists each year, and each year a large majority disagrees (p 164; Appendix 6 Table 10). It should be noted that the proposition itself is highly ambiguous: see below.

Value of survey evidence

  2.25  The amount of survey evidence on public attitudes to science which is now available in this country is impressive, and it repays study. However, it must obviously be interpreted in depth, not just taken at face value. Academic social scientific surveys, designed to stand up to peer review, must be distinguished from commercial attitude and opinion polls designed to meet a client's deadline and budget; and "quantitative" data from large-sample surveys must be distinguished from "qualitative" data derived from more open-ended research on a smaller sample.

  2.26  Large-sample surveys necessarily rely on closed questions, e.g. "Would you place greater trust in A or in B?" or "Do you believe the risk from X to be great or small?" Such a question relies on everyone in the sample understanding it in the same way. Yet terms such as "risk", "trust", "science", "scientist" and "independent" may mean very different things to different people and in different contexts.

  2.27  For example, those who assented to MORI's test proposition cited above, "Even the scientists don't really know what they're talking about when it comes to the environment", might be taken to mean "The findings of environmental research are subject to high degrees of uncertainty". This is true, and the high level of assent would in this case suggest a high level of public understanding. But they might equally be taken to mean "Environmental researchers are incompetent". This is patently not true, and the high level of assent would in this case suggest that environmental science has a serious image problem.

  2.28  In the same way, the test proposition on animal experimentation, "Scientists should be allowed to conduct any experiments on live animals", is flawed by the use of the word "any". Did those who said "Yes" take "any" in the broad sense of "any without limit"? In that case, they support a free-for-all in animal experimentation, an extreme position which most people would reject, including the Government. Or did they take "any" in the narrow sense of "some"? In this case, assent indicates merely opposition to an absolute ban, a much less extreme position which most people would support.

  2.29  Special care must be taken with the evidence set out above concerning trust, since this word has so many meanings. "We trust you" may mean that we believe you can give us right answers and reliable information. It may mean that we believe that you are honest, and will tell us all that you know. Or it may mean that we trust your judgement, and rely on you for decisions which are wise, impartial, ethical and in the public interest. We may trust you in one of these ways, without trusting you in the others. In this case, if a pollster asks us whether we trust you, what are we to say?

  2.30  Expressions of "trust" may also stand for approval of an altogether different kind. For instance, most surveys appear to show relatively high levels of trust in pressure-group science. This may not mean that most people truly believe it to be more reliable or "independent" than science sponsored by government or industry; most people know, or ought to know, that pressure groups are as dependent on subscriptions and donations as companies on orders and governments on votes. Yet these expressions of trust must mean something; and they may signify approval that the pressure group plays a counterbalancing role against government and industry[18].

  2.31  Qualitative research employs smaller samples to address more open-ended questions, e.g. "What dimensions of X pose what risks, and to whom?" Samples in this sort of research are typically too small to be representative. But one important role of qualitative research is to complement quantitative research, by identifying and exploring variations of meaning in people's understanding and responses. This can shed valuable light on public values, and on possible public responses to policy or to language which inadvertently stereotypes or excludes them.

  2.32  It is now common practice, in both academic and commercial surveys, to use quantitative and qualitative methods together. This allows closed questions for use in surveys to be refined in the light of discoveries about public responses to the terms proposed to be used. There are however limits, imposed both by the practicalities of data-handling, and in some cases by a client's commercial or political timetable.

  2.33  Thus quantitative and qualitative methods of eliciting public attitudes, concerns and values each have intrinsic strengths and limitations. However methodologically rigorous it may be, any claim to understand and represent public concerns about complex issues must ultimately find its validation, or not, in the hurly-burly of public debate.

  2.34  The British public is large and very varied. Some commentators are even wary of speaking of "the public" at all, preferring to refer to "publics". We have not adopted this convention, but it makes a valid point: different publics may have different attitudes, and may require to be approached in different ways. The New Scientist/MORI survey on attitudes to animal experimentation sheds interesting light on differences of gender, age, politics, socio-economic group and lifestyle (MORI p 155); and the study by Durant and Bauer for the OST in 1997, cited above, includes a regional analysis.

  2.35  To our surprise, however, none of our witnesses has been able to tell us whether patterns of attitudes to science vary across boundaries of race (May Q 25). One might suspect, for example, that different national and religious traditions regarding food would significantly colour the many debates about food production and safety. The science museums acknowledged to us that they find it difficult to interest ethnic minorities, and described their commendable efforts in this direction (Q 263). Given the importance attached to racial disparities in other respects, the OST or the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) may wish to consider whether there is scope here for research worthy of support.

A crisis of trust

  2.36  The survey data cited in the first part of this Chapter clearly show that something is amiss. It is not difficult to criticise survey results; but it would be foolish to dismiss them as meaningless. The various surveys consistently show negative public responses in respect of science associated with government or industry, and in respect of science not obviously directed towards a clearly beneficial purpose such as human health. These negative responses are expressed in terms of lack of "trust"—whatever precisely this may mean. These results may be said to reflect perception rather than reality; but in this context, as in others, perception is an important reality in itself. In the rest of this Chapter, we consider, with the help of our witnesses, the nature and roots of this perception.

Attitudes to life sciences

  2.37  Some of our witnesses consider that the public is particularly concerned about the "disquieting possibilities" emerging in the biosciences (Turney Q 93). The United Kingdom Life Sciences Committee[19] (p 416) detects the greatest mistrust in the area of food, and blames it on the successive scares over E. coli, BSE and GMOs. University College London likewise detects particular concern over biology; but it reports that "the public approves of genetics research directed towards health but disapproves of genetic engineering, particularly if it evokes eugenics" (p 419).

  2.38  This dichotomy is apparent in data from the Public Consultation on the Biosciences (MORI p 152). When respondents were shown a list of scientific developments and asked to pick two or three which were beneficial to society and two or three which were not, the highest positive ratings and lowest negatives went to medicines, transplants and cures for illness; the lowest positives and highest negatives went to GM animals and plants, GM food and cloning. This suggests, of course, widespread ignorance of the therapeutic applications of genetic modification and cloning technologies, and this was borne out in the qualitative phase of the Consultation.

Attitudes to engineering

  2.39  Some from the engineering community consider that there is a distinct and damaging public attitude to engineering. According to the Engineering Council[20] (p 285), the general public—quite wrongly—thinks that engineering "is poorly paid, dirty and offers little prospect for advancement", fails to appreciate that engineering creates wealth, and associates engineering with bringing about disaster rather than averting it or putting things right.

  2.40  The Engineering Council has told us about some of its initiatives to correct these impressions, particularly those aimed at schoolchildren (p 286). Professor Jack Levy OBE FEng considers that more is needed; he calls for the establishment of a "Chair of the Public Understanding of Engineering and Technologyat a prestigious university" (p 349).

Purpose of the science

  2.41  Survey evidence suggests that public attitudes to scientific progress and research depend crucially on its perceived purpose. For instance, as we have just seen, scientific developments aimed directly at achieving improvements in human health care seem to be the most valued by the public. This is borne out by the shape of the US science budget, which, through Congress, is much more open to public influence than the United Kingdom science budget, and has consequently increased funding for health in recent years more than for other less popular branches of science (see Appendix 3).

Questioning authority

  2.42  The relationship between experts and the rest of society is changing (BAAS p 47). In all areas of society it is now normal for assertions of authority to be questioned. When the decision-maker says "Trust me", the response is very often "Show me". Scientific authority is in this respect no different from the authority of parents, teachers, the police or indeed Parliament.

  2.43  It is even possible that an increased willingness among British scientists to engage in public-understanding activities has encouraged the public to be more questioning than before. As Sir Robert May's data cited above seem to show, critical questioning may indicate a more informed and scientifically literate citizenry. We explore this possibility in Chapter 3, and consider the case for taking this change of attitude among scientists one step further.

Source of the science

  2.44  The survey data cited above show that people differentiate, in their responses to science, according to its source (MORI p 167). In such surveys, as we have seen, "independent scientists" and "scientists working for environmental groups" generally score well on "trust"; government and industrial scientists generally score badly. In particular, it is widely perceived that the beneficiaries of much new science are the large multinational corporations and their managers, while the public is left to carry the risk. This is a manifestation of globalisation. This point was strongly made during our visit to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, USA. We consider the concept of "independent science" further in Chapter 4 below.

A culture of secrecy

  2.45  The administrative culture of the United Kingdom is notoriously secretive. This is perhaps partly a legacy of the conditions imposed by two world wars. Be that as it may, there is an abiding presumption that government information and decision-making processes are confidential and closed. This has left the field wide open to allegations of conspiracy and cover-up. This is particularly damaging when the subject-matter concerns risk, the assessment of which depends on many assumptions; and when questions of science are involved, in which there is often a degree of uncertainty and room for disagreement.

  2.46  Sir Robert May has already challenged the culture of secrecy by promulgating Guidelines for the use of scientific advice in policy-making, including a strong presumption of openness. We consider these guidelines in Chapter 4.

Framing the problem

  2.47  Much public policy debate is confused by an assumption that the issues reverberating around science in the public domain, especially a whole variety of risk issues, can be reduced to a set of questions capable of objective and incontrovertible answer by scientific research. Most often, in truth, the issues are complex. Scientific understanding can contribute to a resolution of these issues, but only in partnership with judgements based on people's attitudes, values and ethics (Irwin Q 54; Ogilvie QQ 164, 169; Radford QQ 196, 219; Miller/Reilly Q 486ff).

  2.48  People may be unhappy about an issue of widespread concern being treated by decision-makers as a purely scientific issue, admissible only of a scientific answer (Cons Assn Q 602). Of course science is a crucial element of such issues, and the best possible knowledge must be procured and respected. But this scientific knowledge does not stand alone, to the exclusion of social, ethical and other factors. As Sir Aaron Klug put it[21], "The policy-maker has to take account not only of objective facts but also of the art of the possible".

  2.49  It is a difficult challenge to get this balance right: on the one hand to address the scientific questions seriously, but on the other hand to avoid reducing the whole public issue to one of science. A negative public response to expert assertions on issues involving science may be mistaken as negative to science, when in reality people are responding negatively to the way in which this reduction to a "scientific issue" alone distorts or excludes other legitimate concerns.

  2.50  For example, the possible consequences of the commercialisation of GMOs for the shape of agriculture are the focus of much concern in this area. This is a political question of the balance of power between agribusiness, the small farmer and the consumer, not a scientific issue about the effects of GMOs on human health or the environment. But it is often mistakenly folded into the scientific questions about environmental or health consequences, with the result that an adverse public response is portrayed as being based either on misunderstanding of the science or even on hostility towards it [22]


  2.51  Sir Robert May made this point clearly last year in a publication on GM crops: "There are real social and environmental choices to be madeThey are not about safety as such, but about much larger questions of what kind of a world we want to live in"[23].

  2.52  Another example is the controversy over whether food containing GM ingredients should be labelled as such. The European Union (EU) and the British Government have recently decided that it should. Those who see this issue in purely scientific terms argue that this decision is irrational, since in some cases the GM material could just as well have been produced by non-GM means, while in any case GM ingredients would not be permitted for food use if there were evidence that they might be harmful. In the minds of many people, however, this is to miss the point; the real issue at stake is consumer choice.

  2.53  Professor Conway identified the complexity of the GM debate in his address to the directors of Monsanto. He said, "Much of what is being said in Europe is driven by passion. Some of it is motivated by simple anti-corporate or anti-American sentiment. But underlying some of this rhetoric are genuine concerns about the ethical consequences of biotechnology, about fear for the environment and about the potential impact on human health."

  2.54  Once it is admitted that many of the issues currently treated by decision-makers as science issues may in fact involve many other factors besides science, the question is, what to do about it? This is a central question of our inquiry, and we address it in Chapter 5 below.

Ignorance or understanding?

  2.55  It is widely assumed that one of the roots of public mistrust of science is ignorance, and in particular the public's apparent insistence on zero risk and absolute certainty. Many of our witnesses pointed to the tendency for opinion-formers to have an arts background and to regard science as difficult or at any rate different. "Even among well-educated groups there is little stigma in United Kingdom society in claiming ignorance of science" (MRC p 351). We consider science education in schools in Chapter 6. Other witnesses blame the media for pandering to public ignorance; we discuss the role of the media in Chapter 7.

  2.56  However some current research suggests[24] that the public in fact understands uncertainty and risk well, on the basis of everyday experience. People use common sense to interpret and evaluate what they hear about technological advances, and attempt to put it in its cultural, social and ethical context and to translate it into terms which are useful or at least relevant to themselves (Cons Assn Q 609; Nat Hist Mus p 62). As illustrated by the survey data cited above, given proper information, people are often able to weigh risks against benefits, evaluate uncertainties, and reach sensible and even sophisticated judgements. On this view, one of the major factors engendering mistrust is the failure of institutional science at the frontiers of knowledge to admit publicly its own uncertainties and to provide accordingly.

  2.57  So, for instance, there was no public outcry when genetically modified tomato paste went on sale in the United Kingdom in 1995, clearly labelled as such so as to allow consumers to choose to avoid it. What set the scene for the more recent uproar was the marketing of unsegregated mixtures of natural and GM soya and maize, implying not only, as noted above, that the only issue at stake was the science, but also that the science was sufficiently certain for consumers to be deprived of choice. Although it is highly likely that, in both cases, the natural and GM products are equally safe, it is possible that uncertainty over whether the cultivation of GM plants carried risks of affecting other plant species affected people's judgement about a wholly different type of risk, namely the possibility of toxicity to humans. It is notable that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing its position on the issues of segregation and labelling of GM foods, in the light of events in Europe; the FDA held a series of public meetings on these issues in November and December 1999.

  2.58  There is probably truth in both propositions. In areas where the risks are perceived to be imposed and regulated by others, such as public transport or food supply, people are understandably inclined to demand high and possibly unattainable levels of safety and certainty. In areas where people feel more control, such as smoking and driving, they tend to be more pragmatic and even reckless. It is hard to predict a priori what the public will regard as "safe enough"; but it should cause little surprise if what the public find acceptable does not correspond with the objective risks as understood by science.


  2.59  Underlying public attitudes to any particular issue or activity will be found a variety of public values. As the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) put it in its recent report Setting Environmental Standards[25], values are

    "beliefs, either individual or social, about what is important in life, and thus about the ends or objectives which should govern and shape public policies".

  2.60  The RCEP goes on to identify two characteristics of values. First, they evolve through information and reflection. Second, when applied to any particular situation, the values of any individual will often conflict with each other, and with the values of other people. Policy-makers therefore face a triple challenge: recognising people's values, seeing that they are understood and brought into the debate, and making policy which comes near enough to satisfying the values of enough people to command support.

  2.61  In matters with a scientific element there is arguably a fourth challenge, due to the deference of many people in the face of "science". The challenge is to help and provoke people to articulate their values, which otherwise may go altogether unexpressed.

  2.62  The RCEP observes that values are not the same as interests. Interests may be accommodated, bought off or "squared"; values may not. The RCEP gives examples of widely-held values in the environmental field:

  • "the environment is a vital resource for human livelihood and an essential condition for human health and well-being;
  • the rich diversity of species, ecosystems and habitats deserves protection not because of its usefulness to the human race, but for its own sake;
  • the environment has a cultural, historical or social significance, and may deserve protection on this account alone (for example, a landscape which has resulted from industrial or mining activity may signify a history of which a community may be proud or highly conscious" (SES 7.4).

  2.63  Greenpeace attempts some broader generalisations (p 311), relevant equally to GMOs, chemical hazards and nuclear waste:

  • Public reaction to risk may not correspond to quantitative assessment. "Reactions to uncontrollable, poorly understood, inequitable, intergenerational and potentially catastrophic or irreversible risks are likely to be negative."
  • The public may demand justification for risk, especially when those who create the risk, and benefit from it, are not the same as those who bear the risk.
  • The public want a "more natural personal environment".

  2.64  Both these sets of statements express values with which many readers will identify. It is not however the purpose of this report to say what we believe the values of the British public to be. This question must be asked afresh by policy-makers as each new situation arises.


  2.65  In our view knowledge obtained through scientific investigation does not in itself have a moral dimension; but the ways in which it is pursued, and the applications to which it may be put, inevitably engage with morality. Science is conducted and applied by individuals; as individuals and as a collection of professions, scientists must have morality and values, and must be allowed and indeed expected to apply them to their work and its applications. By declaring openly the values which underpin their work, and by engaging with the values and attitudes of the public, they are far more likely to command public support.

  2.66  The importance of this is not confined to scientists; it extends to those who make policy, whether public or commercial, on the basis of scientific opportunities and advice. Policy-makers will find it hard to win public support, or even acquiescence, on any issue with a science component, unless the public's attitudes and values are recognised, respected and weighed in the balance along with the scientific and other factors.

  2.67  Once this is acknowledged, the question, as we have already observed, is how to put it into practice. In Chapter 3 we consider activities which conventionally bear the label "public understanding of science", and their role in bringing out public attitudes to new developments in science. In Chapter 5 we consider the case for new more interactive processes of public dialogue.

12   Durant, Evans & Thomas, Public understanding of science, Nature 340 (6 July 1989); Durant & Bauer, Public understanding of science in Britain, report to the OST, 1997. Back

13   Op. cit. Back

14   The British Government's standing consultative panel of 5,000 members of the public. See Chapter 5 below. Back

15   22 May 1999. Back

16   Public Perceptions of Chemistry, Qualitative Research, Management Report, RSC May 1995. Back

17   Op. cit. Back

18   Grove-White et al 1997, Wynne et al 1995. Back

19   Comprising 13 learned societies. Back

20   The body which accredits, regulates and represents professional engineers in the UK. Back

21   Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999. Back

22   The politics of GM food: risk, science and public trust, ESRC Special Briefing 5, October 1999; Wynne, Patronising Joe Public, THES 1996. Back

23   Genetically Modified Foods, Facts, Worries, Policies and Public Confidence, OST, February 1999. Back

24   Irwin and Wynne (eds), Misunderstanding science? Cambridge University Press 1996. Back

25   21st Report, October 1998, Cm 4053. Referred to below as "SES". Back

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