Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


Engaging the public: towards democratic science

  5.38  We believe that all these approaches have value. They are not substitutes for decision-making, but aids to it. They help the decision-maker to listen and respond promptly to public values and concerns; and they give the public some assurance that their views are taken into account, increasing the chance that decisions will find acceptance. Each may serve the purpose identified by Professor Conway: "to help create a public space for conversation—to turn down the decibel level and increase the amount of real information and exchange that could lead to a more positive outcome". No one method is perfect; and which is the best will depend on the context, and on whether the aim is public consultation or market research. Listening has a cost. But so does not listening, and this cost may be far higher, paid in hostile headlines and ground lost to single-issue groups (R Soc p 44, COPUS Q 155), in consumer boycotts and lost jobs.

  5.39  The cost includes time. An instructive example of good practice is the process which led to the current system of regulating human fertilisation and embryology. The Warnock Committee reported in July 1984; there followed a green paper in 1986, a white paper in 1987 and finally a bill in November 1989. This lengthy process was widely agreed to be appropriate to the complex and controversial nature of the issue.

  5.40  The public consultation initiatives described above have all been used recently in the United Kingdom to try to remedy severe gaps in the relatively unaccountable traditional policy culture which have made themselves felt in recent times. They are laudable and even bold in principle. They are however isolated ad hoc events, disconnected from institutional responsibilities and decision-making procedures, which do not themselves change the terms, relationships and cultures of the institutions which make public policy. They have value; but they are no substitute for genuine changes in the cultures and constitutions of key decision-making institutions, where the need is to render these more accountable and open. Instead, they may well have a use as catalysts, to bring such changes about.

  5.41  It was this cultural change which Professor Conway urged upon Monsanto in June 1999. "There must be a new culturethat provides careful monitoring, open reporting and transparency, and a place for public participation Only if you are seen to be careful, concerned, interested and open-minded will you convince the reasonable majority that you are a partner to be trustedThis is not the time for a new issues management programme or a new offensive by a PR agency. It is time for a new relationship based on honesty, full disclosure and a very uncertain shared future."

  5.42  We learned much in this area from our visit to the USA. The US institutional context for governmental decision-making about issues involving science is much more transparent and open than in the United Kingdom and most European contexts. It is quite formalised, for example in administrative law, governing how public agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the FDA procure expert advice. Institutional mechanisms for expert advice are themselves conducted under intense public scrutiny, legally enforced through the courts on the basis of legislative mandates. Thus each of the many and diverse expert scientific fora is a social microcosm of public participation. This is because the experts involved are familiar with the kinds of public reactions which will ensue should they fail to consider one angle or another.

  5.43  The USA's distinctive political culture is stiffened by an elaborate legal-constitutional structure of formal accountability, including the Freedom of Information Act, the Government in the Sunshine Act, the "right to know" laws, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and the Shelby Amendment to the Appropriations Bill. These laws give rise to expert mechanisms and occasions of collective negotiation over risk assessments and regulations which are already more representative of diverse public concerns and values than equivalents in the United Kingdom or most of the rest of the European Union.

  5.44  This may explain why in the USA we found little interest in the techniques of consultation employed for events such as the Consensus Conference on Nuclear Waste or the Public Consultation on the Biosciences—except from the AAAS, which has organised public forums on such subjects as cloning and stem cell research, and at the independent Loka Institute which has worked since 1987 to make science and technology more responsive to society. Of course, consulting the US public at national level also involves problems of scale and diversity far greater than our own.

  5.45  We do not suggest that the Americans have got it all right; in particular we found the emphasis on litigation unattractive. But it was apparent to us that there is in the USA far more genuinely institutionalised dialogue as part of the routine operating culture of government bodies; and those with whom we spoke there believed that this contributed to an apparently greater degree of public confidence in science-based policy. Expert advisers understand themselves to be both hearing and representing popular concerns in ways that do not prevail in the United Kingdom. Thus the dichotomy between science advice and public consultation is not relevant in the US context.

  5.46  There is a crucial lesson here for the United Kingdom. It is that a meaningful response to the well-recognised need for more and better dialogue between the public and science in the United Kingdom requires us to go beyond event-based initiatives like consensus conferences or citizens' juries. The United Kingdom must change existing institutional terms of reference and procedures to open them up to more substantial influence and effective inputs from diverse groups. Consultation of interested groups is already widely practised in preparing legislation and regulations; but this falls well short of both the diversity and the substantive strength of formal agency granted to public representative groups to articulate values and views in legal and many other fora in the USA. The typically adversarial nature of such processes in the USA is often looked upon with horror by British scientists; but it does not seem to have done US science any harm, and the capacity of US scientists to explain themselves and their work in public contexts may have been enhanced.

  5.47  We asked the leading consumer organisations to identify best practice in these respects in United Kingdom government. The Consumers' Association commended the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Q 642). However, they expressed disappointment that sound principles enunciated by the Inter-departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA), which the HSE chairs, are not "really feeding down into day-to-day good practices" across government.

  5.48  We commend the Government and the scientific community for the limited experimental efforts which have already been made. We recommend however that direct dialogue with the public should move from being an optional add-on to science-based policy-making and to the activities of research organisations and learned institutions, and should become a normal and integral part of the process.

  5.49  There is an important caveat to be entered here. Some of the greatest advances of science have been made in the face of public hostility, sometimes religious in origin; Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin provide the two most outstanding examples from the past. To prohibit science from progressing without express public support in advance would be retrograde and repressive, and would stifle creative scientific research or drive it overseas. This is not what our recommendations are intended to achieve.

  5.50  Nonetheless, in modern democratic conditions, science like any other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and values at its peril. Our recommendation for increased and integrated dialogue with the public is intended to secure science's "licence to practise", not to restrict it.

  5.51  The Research Defence Society considers that what is needed is not more dialogue, but more research into how public attitudes to science are formed. In its view, "the scientific community cannot engage the public in dialogue, but only pressure groups who are usually aligned against the issue of concern" (p 382). We agree that this is a risk: those organising public dialogue must see to it that single-issue groups do not monopolise proceedings. But it need not be so; one of the impressive features of the Consensus Conference on Nuclear Waste, as some of us can testify at first hand, was how the voices of the pressure groups were moderated by other voices and by the presence of independent observers, allowing less familiar and more representative voices to come through.

  5.52  The OST and COPUS are both reviewing their activities in the area of the public understanding of science. We recommend that, for OST within Government and for COPUS giving a lead in the scientific community, dialogue with the public in one form or another should become a major strand of their activities.

  5.53  We endorse the recommendation of the RCEP in Setting Environmental Standards that government departments should collate experience of new techniques of public dialogue, and draw up a code of practice designed both to maximise their effectiveness and preserve their integrity. This exercise should be led by the OST. The code should have the same status as the Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines on scientific advice, and might even form part of them.

  5.54  Any public dialogue must be conducted in good faith, and its aims and in particular its role in the policy process should be clear from the start. People who put effort into consultation will not expect the outcome to translate directly into policy. But they are entitled to expect that their collective contribution will be taken seriously by decision-makers. This point was made forcibly by the panel at the consensus conference on nuclear waste. Participants may also find that the consultation process itself will improve the climate in which the issue at stake is treated from then on (Irwin Q 79, Briggs Q 138, BAAS p 48, SES 7.42).

  5.55  Those of us who attended that conference were dismayed by the silence of the media on this potentially important event (Q 230). Why this might have been is discussed in Chapter 7 below. While no one can command the headlines, organisers of such events should make every effort to encourage the media to cover the event and to report the outcomes (SES 7.44, BAAS p 48, R Soc p 45). The media will of course be more inclined to report the event if it is clearly part of the policy process, as recommended above.

  5.56  We have already observed that the EU would benefit from a commitment to open up its scientific advice, in line with the principles set out in the United Kingdom Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines. The EU would benefit equally from public dialogue along the lines set out above (COPUS Q 832, SES 7.37). This country is widely regarded as a leader in Europe in this area, and the Government have enough experience by now to give a lead at EU level; we recommend that they should do so.

  5.57  It is even possible that, on some issues, global public dialogues with science may be practical and desirable. At any rate there are many countries which might benefit from the growing United Kingdom expertise in this area. One appropriate forum for this would be UNESCO, where in the absence of the USA the United Kingdom has the double advantage of being a leading scientific nation and speaking the international language of science.

  5.58  This would be an appropriate activity for the British Council. They told us that they are currently "developing a Science and Society brand", and seeking ways "to highlight, for international audiences

  (a)  the creativity and innovation of the United Kingdom's approach to addressing the social and ethical issues surrounding scientific advances,

  (b)  the responses of science, engineering and technology organisations to public concerns, such as the provision of better information,

  (c)  the need for open debate, and

  (d)  the links between socio-economic drivers, scientific research and government responses" (p 140).

  5.59  We warmly commend the British Council for this initiative. The Council is planning an international seminar on science communication to take place this year; we hope that our report may make a contribution to this discussion.

  5.60  The possibility of an international initiative in this area was also mooted at the World Conference on Science organised by UNESCO and ICSU (the International Council for Science) in Budapest in June 1999 (British Council Q 541, COPUS Q 832). We recommend that the Government should give a high-profile lead in taking this initiative forward.

Lay involvement in scientific advisory groups

  5.61  Discussion of policy matters is often enriched by the participation of non-specialists. A non-specialist may identify a need to address certain broader aspects of a problem, which are too easily taken for granted by the specialist community. Depending on circumstances, the non-specialist may be a non-scientist, or a scientific specialist from another discipline.

  5.62  In many scientific areas, policy has traditionally been made by the method known satirically as GOBSAT—"good ol' boys sat around a table". In response to the increasing resistance to decision-making by experts alone, noted above, there is a growing trend to open scientific advisory committees to lay involvement. For example, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) includes a consumer affairs expert and an ethicist; and the Advisory Committee on Releases (of GMOs) to the Environment (ACRE) includes an environmentalist. The Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines say that departments seeking scientific advice should

  "involve at least some experts from other, not necessarily scientific, disciplines, to ensure that the evidence is subjected to a sufficiently questioning review from a wide ranging set of viewpoints" (cp Q 45).

  5.63  The Consumers' Association hopes to see further moves in this direction (Q 617). The Commons Science and Technology Committee has recommended that the proportion of members of this description should be one in five.[47] We would add that, as is increasingly widely understood, women often have distinctive viewpoints which may go unrepresented on such bodies unless a special effort is made to include them.

  5.64  There is an obvious danger that this approach is, or appears to be, mere tokenism—the inclusion of a lay element for purely presentational reasons, with no real expectation that the lay people will contribute or be listened to (SES 7.34). The National Consumer Council reports from experience that it can be difficult in practice for lay members to make a more than token contribution if, for example, large volumes of technical material are tabled at short notice (Q 640). The Institute of Science in Society suggests another, less obvious danger: that, if the divide between expert and lay members is too clean, "that implicitly assumes that the science has been established beyond any doubt, so that all that remains to be discussed are the ethical, environmental and other such issues" (p 330). On the other hand, in contrast with ad hoc exercises such as focus groups, lay involvement in a standing committee allows for sustained engagement with the issues in question, so that the lay members can grasp the subject and reach a fully thought-through point of view (C of E p 277).

  5.65  The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, reporting last year on the scientific advisory system in respect of GM foods, noted that the ACNFP and the ACRE were both moving in the direction of openness. This trend has been encouraged by guidelines from the Cabinet Office, Quangos—Opening the Doors. ACNFP places its minutes on the Internet; its discussion papers are available on request; and it has experimented with public meetings on generic issues, though not on specific cases. Since December 1999, all information submitted to the ACNFP as part of a marketing application is disclosable on request and is to appear on the Internet, subject to exceptions to protect competitive positions and intellectual property rights[48]. ACRE has not held open meetings; but it makes public its technical reports, advice to Ministers and minutes. The Commons Committee has recommended total disclosure in these cases, and that all meetings should be held in public, unless a company concerned can show that this would cause commercial harm[49].

  5.66  Besides opening expert committees to involvement of experts from other disciplines, an alternative approach is to separate the function of scientific advice on particular cases from that of strategic advice, and give the latter function to a body with much broader membership. The regulation of biotechnology is currently being reformed along these lines. On 21 May[50], in the light of the Public Consultation on the Biosciences, the Government announced the formation of two new bodies:

  • The Human Genetics Commission, a successor to the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, to advise on applications of biotechnology in health care and the wider implications of human genetics; and
  • The Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission, to advise on the use of biotechnology in agriculture and its environmental effects.

  5.67  Membership will cover a broad range of interests, including science, ethics and consumer issues. The Commissions will be required to consult widely with stakeholders and the public. In particular, they are to:

  • "Undertake consultations/issue consultation documents about specific issues and publish details, ensuring that respondents know that their views have been listened to and acted upon if appropriate, or if not why not.
  • Where it would help public understanding, hold open meetings, public consensus conferences, open workshops or meetings on the Internet either on general topics or with a particular theme, as part of a consultation process.
  • Highlight, and encourage public debate about, 'first of a kind' cases which raise issues that have not been aired before"[51].

  5.68  The Human Genetics Commission is already in being, with the Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws in the chair; the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission will be established shortly.

  5.69  These changes are welcomed by the National Consumer Council (Q 637); the Consumers' Association gives them a qualified welcome (Q 640). We consider the changes to be a step in the right direction.

  5.70  It is a precondition of public dialogue that there be the highest possible degree of openness. We recommend that all advisory and decision-making bodies in areas involving science should adopt a presumption of openness. This presumption should apply, in particular, to the reasons on which regulatory decisions are made, including all scientific information and advice. The presumption should be overridden only where this can clearly be justified in terms of, for example, genuine commercial confidentiality.

  5.71  As one simple but symbolic step in the direction of openness, we recommend that all such bodies should open as many of their proceedings as possible to the public, while reserving the right to meet in private when this is felt to be necessary.

  5.72  An absolute ban on private meetings would be excessive. We note that the US National Academies of Science have had to fight a rearguard action on this matter, in the light of the Federal Advisory Committees Act.

  5.73  The new Food Standards Agency will come into being shortly. Issues of science, risk and public confidence will confront it from the start. As a new agency, it will have an opportunity to create its own culture, within the limits set by its parent Act[52]. We recommend that this should be a culture of direct, open and timely dialogue with the public; and we commend this report and the evidence which underpins it to the Agency's first Chairman, Sir John Krebs, and to all those involved in setting the Agency up. It is encouraging to note that the first of the Agency's statutory "general objectives"[53] is "securing that its activities are the subject of consultation withthose affected, and, where appropriate, with members of the public", while the third is "securing that records of its decisions, and the information on which they are based, are kept and made available with a view to enabling members of the public to make informed judgments about the way in which it is carrying out its functions".

  5.74  We were interested to discover, on our visit to the USA, that the EPA is in the process of a cultural shift of this kind. The officers whom we met were undaunted by the prospect of improved communication with the public. They pointed to the need to change the culture of the whole Agency, rather than simply create a communications unit within it; to the danger that improved communication may be seen as mere public relations, not least by politicians scrutinising the EPA's budget; and to the practical difficulty that not everyone is a good communicator. The EPA also gave us an example of the cost of openness: of 900 staff employed on regulation of pesticides, 60 handle requests for documents and other work arising from the Freedom of Information Act, and their Director reckoned that there was enough work for 60 more.

Research Councils

  5.75  Some of the Research Councils are currently making steps towards greater public involvement in the processes whereby they set their priorities.

  5.76  Lay involvement in Research Council decision-making receives qualified endorsement from the Chief Scientific Adviser: "not too much but not too little" (Q 42). The Royal Society is content for the public to have a say in that part of Research Council funding which is directed[54], in pursuit of their missions to improve wealth creation and the quality of life (p 45). In the particular area of medical research, the public has of course a very direct input to priorities through support for single-disease charities. But the Royal Society and the BAAS (p 48) are anxious that funds for basic, undirected research should continue to be awarded on scientific merit alone, as judged by the process of peer review.

  5.77  The Scottish Science Trust proposes that membership of the Research Councils themselves should be widened, to bring in more non-specialists. They also suggest that the Research Councils might hold open public meetings (p 410).

  5.78  In our view, it would be wholly inappropriate for lay members of the public to judge the scientific merit of particular grant proposals. This must continue to be done by peer review. To expect lay people to participate in this particular aspect of the work of the Research Councils would, in the case of most grant proposals, be asking the impossible; and it would risk imposing a general chill on scientific freedom in the way which we deprecated in paragraph 5.49 above.

  5.79  We commend the Research Councils, however, for their efforts to involve stakeholders and the public in the wider task of setting the priorities against which particular grants are made. We encourage them to go further down the road of public engagement, and to seek greater publicity for the process. We suggest that they might seek the considered involvement of members of Parliament and local authorities, and of other people active in their communities; and that they might hold occasional open forum meetings in different locations.

Early warning, or no publication before review?

  5.80  In moving towards greater openness and public engagement, science faces one very practical dilemma. Should research be in the public eye all along, even at the early stages when it is speculative and may prove to be misconceived? Or should public attention be sought only when results have been finalised and peer-reviewed? Dr Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute found himself on the first course in 1998 in relation to his research into the effects of GM potatoes on rats, and has been much criticised in consequence[55]. Dr Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute chose the second, with the result that, with the publication of Nature on 26 February 1997, Dolly, the now famous cloned sheep, was sprung on a world which was wholly unprepared for her enormous ethical implications. In the workshops which formed part of the Public Consultation on the Biosciences, many participants complained that they heard of Dolly only "after the event" (MORI p 160).

  5.81  This is a difficult dilemma, made more so in many cases by issues of intellectual property and commercial confidentiality on the one hand, and on the other by freedom of information legislation. To publish the conclusions of research in advance of peer review will almost always be irresponsible: as Sir Aaron Klug put it[56], "Much mischief has been caused by scientists seeking publicity for unreviewed 'findings' that turned out to be seriously wrong". We recommend that the exemption, from the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Bill currently before Parliament, for information intended for future publication[57], be scrutinised to ensure that it is sufficient to safeguard the crucial importance of peer review.

  5.82  However scientists cannot be gagged (COPUS Q 803). From time to time work in progress is bound to be mentioned, e.g. at a conference, and may be picked up by the media. In some circumstances to give the public, through the press, an early indication of the nature of a line of research, in suitably cautious terms, may well be desirable in the public interest, and may give early warning of an unexpected public reaction. Researchers in this position should receive help from their university press office or learned society.

A new institution?

  5.83  Some of our witnesses consider that a new institution is needed, as a national focus for engagement between science and the public. The Wellcome Trust (p 131), Dr Paul Nurse and Dr John Tooze[58] (p 373) and the Café Scientifique (p 272) propose an institution with some or all of the following functions:

  • Giving policy-makers and the public rapid and reliable information on science issues of current concern;
  • Anticipating public concern and provoking timely debate;
  • Monitoring public opinion on science issues;
  • Conducting public dialogue on science issues;
  • Representing the public in science policy groups.

It is interesting that such a proposal should be made independently by witnesses spanning the distance from the establishment to the "grass roots".

  5.84  Although all three perceive a need for such a body, and all agree that it would need public trust, they have quite different ideas as to how it might be constituted in order to secure it. Dr Nurse and Dr Tooze consider that its funding should be independent of Government and "vested interest groups"; they suggest grafting it onto (or growing it out of) the Royal Society. The Wellcome Trust and the Café, on the other hand, envisage public funding. The Café would position it as "independent"—in particular, independent of the scientific societies and industry. The Trust would model it on the National Audit Office and the Danish Board of Technology, which report to Parliament. Rather than expecting new money, the Trust suggests that it might be funded with the £4.5m p.a. currently spent by and through OST on public understanding of science activities.

  5.85  We put these proposals to Sir Tom Blundell, Chairman of the RCEP. His reaction was "not entirely enthusiastic" (Q 674), on the ground that, as argued in Setting Environmental Standards, public dialogue on environmental and other science issues needs to be specific, and requires a process tailored to each specific situation. However he considered that there might be "a role for an overarching body in monitoring and assessing best practice", and that such a body ought to be "close to Parliament, because we are talking about public values, public confidence in decision-making".

  5.86  COPUS expressed even less enthusiasm for yet another organisation entering an already crowded scene. They consider in particular that any organisation connected closely with either Government or Parliament is unlikely to command the necessary public confidence (Q 795).

  5.87  We agree that there is no need for a new institution in an already crowded scene. We have argued instead that a change in the culture of existing institutions is called for. We have noted encouraging evidence that in some cases, e.g. the national science museums and the Research Councils, such a change is beginning to take place; and we have recommended that the OST and COPUS should give a lead in the public and private sectors respectively. Creating a new institution with special responsibility for public dialogue would run the real risk of having the opposite effect, of encouraging all existing institutions to regard public dialogue as somebody else's business.

  5.88  In particular we commend POST for resisting the temptation to replicate the work of the Danish Board of Technology, in some respects its sister-organisation, in the significantly different conditions of the United Kingdom. We met the officers of the Danish Board of Technology in Copenhagen, and we were impressed by its work, which is described in Appendix 4 and which is evidently highly valued in Denmark. However the Danish parliamentary and social contexts are different from those in this country.

  5.89  POST has an important role to play, in filtering for this Parliament the large quantities of information which are now available about public attitudes to science. We look to POST to maintain a watching brief on the development of public consultation and dialogue on science-related issues, and to keep members of both Houses informed. This may have implications for POST's resources, if at the same time POST is to maintain its excellent service of technical briefing, which is of great value to members of both Houses.

47   Scientific Advisory System: GM Foods, HC 286, para 53. Back

48   Directions by the Minister of Agriculture pursuant to the Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients Regulations 1997, as amended by the Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients (Amendment) (England) Regulations 1999, 21 December 1999. Back

49   HC 286, para 56. Back

50   Cabinet Office press notice 109/99. Back

51   Advisory and Regulatory Framework for Biotechnology: Report from the Government's Review, Cabinet Office/OST, May 1999. Back

52   Food Standards Act 1999. Back

53   Section 22. Back

54   Directed funding involves the funding organisation calling for proposals for research on a specified topic, and setting aside a proportion of its budget for such research. When funding is undirected, funds go to the proposals which appear to promise the best science, regardless of topic or application. The line between the two modes is not clean, and all the Research Councils operate in both modes. Back

55   E.g. letter from 19 FRSs to the press, 22 February 1999; House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report Scientific Advisory System: GM Foods, May 1999, HC 286; Royal Society statement Review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, June 1999Back

56   Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999. Back

57   House of Commons Bill 5, Clause 20. Back

58   Director-General and Director of Research Services of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, giving evidence in their personal capacities. Back

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