Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


17-22 OCTOBER 1999

Note by the Chairman

1. I and four other members of the Sub-Committee, and our Specialist Assistant, visited the USA for five days in October 1999. The programme of meetings in Washington D.C. and Boston was arranged to give the visitors a sense of how the issues we had discussed in the United Kingdom were handled in the USA. We were particularly interested to see if the reputed positive public attitudes to science in the USA were a reality, and if so whether there were different US institutions and practices that were responsible for creating such support.

2. My companions were Lord Haskel, Lord Kirkwood, Lord Tombs, Baroness Wilcox, and Dr Adam Heathfield. We count ourselves extremely fortunate in having met so many informative and interesting people in the USA, and are extremely grateful to all those who set aside time to see us and who were involved in making preparations for our visit. We wish particularly to place on record our thanks for the hospitality and assistance we received from HE Sir Christopher Meyer KCMG, British Ambassador in Washington, Mr George Fergusson, HM Consul-General in Boston, and their staffs, notably Miss Philippa Rogers and Mr Simon Sherrington who accompanied us on our travels in Washington and Boston respectively.

3. This note is a summary of the main points brought to the visiting party's attention during our time in the USA. The text in italics represents our comments on information received in each of the meetings; that in plain text is either background information or observations made to us by our hosts.

4. The cost of the visit was approximately £26,000.


White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

  • Dr Neal Lane, President's Science Advisor
  • Dr Arthur Bienenstock, Associate Director for Science

5. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was created in 1976 to provide the President with science advice and to co-ordinate research and development programmes of the Federal government. The OSTP forms part of the executive office of the President (similar to when the OST was part of the Cabinet Office in the United Kingdom) and its head, Dr Neal Lane, is the USA's equivalent to the Chief Scientific Adviser.

6. Dr Lane has spoken of the need for "civic scientists" who communicate risks and benefits clearly to the public and respond to their concerns. He has expressed the view that scientists have a responsibility to work with the media, civic organisations and other outreach mechanisms to make sure consumers have the information needed to make informed decisions.

7. Public attitudes to science were seen as being increasingly important. Public opinion and lobbying were influential in setting the budget allocation for science, and public confidence in the scientific basis of regulations was essential for the operation of US regulatory agencies.

8. The supervisory system for food safety was open to public scrutiny, and this created public trust in the regulatory agencies and had been a significant factor in the lack of public concern over GM food. The Freedom of Information Act was important in ensuring openness.

9. The meeting at the OSTP provided a very useful overview of the relationship between science and society in the USA. Attitudes to science in the USA appeared to be more favourable than in the United Kingdom, but the current level of public support could not be taken for granted.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS—often referred to as "triple-A-S")

  • Dr Mark Frankel, Director, Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program
  • Joanne Carney, Director, Science & Technology and Congress
  • Nan Broadbent, Director, Office of News and Information

10. The AAAS is the main body in America responsible for promoting public understanding of science. It supports a number of programmes focussed on areas where science, society and government intersect, and has organised a number of public forums on sensitive scientific issues including cloning, GMOs and stem cell research. The AAAS publishes Science magazine, amongst other titles, which provides an important source of income. It also organises EurekAlert!—an internet resource of science stories for journalists (the nearest United Kingdom equivalent is the recently-created AlphaGalileo site).

11. A dialogue between the science community and the general public was required to enable the public's needs and values to be understood by the science community, and for them to be included in decision making. However, many in the US science community had not yet "bought into" the concept of a public dialogue. Furthermore, it was not clear what methods of public participation would work best in the USA.

12. Science promotion and promoting debate about science were not the same, and the AAAS was not an organisation attempting to advance science at all costs. There was a tacit "contract of consent" for scientists, and the public should be able to place some limitations on what the scientific community did.

13. The meeting with the AAAS had many similarities with evidence we had received in the United Kingdom. The descriptions of the relationship between science and society and the language used were very familiar. The overall impression was of an organisation attempting to encourage the scientific community to catch up with its changing social context.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS)

  • Donna Geradi Riordan, Director, Office on Public Understanding of Science
  • Susan Turner-Lowe, Director, News and Public Information Office
  • John Campbell, Associate Executive Director, International Affairs Office
  • Dr Warren Muir, Executive Director, Commission on Life Sciences
  • Dr Charles Evans, Senior Advisor for Biomedical and Clinical Research
  • Dr Jennifer Kuzma, Program Officer, Board on Biology

14. The NAS incorporates the National Research Council, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine (these organisations are referred to as the National Academies). The National Academies provide science advice to Congress and the White House, but operate outside the framework of government, assembling committees of experts to produce reports.

15. The flagship project of the NAS's Office of Public Understanding of Science (OPUS) is "Beyond Discovery", a series of publications which traces the development of well-known scientific inventions, showing how their origins are in curiosity-driven research, often in areas far removed from their current application. The project was initiated to redress a perceived lack of understanding (within Congress and more generally) of the importance of undirected, as well as directed, research.

16. There is greater public trust in the regulators in the US than in the United Kingdom. Trust was promoted by the clear demarcation between the regulator and those regulated (a situation which the United Kingdom may be said to be moving towards of late), and openness as ensured by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Federal Advisory Committees Act (FACA—which ensures openness in the procedures of federal committees) and right-to-know laws, which require agencies actively to put information into the public domain.

17. The FACA has recently been applied to the expert committees of the National Academies that provide advice to government. An exemption was introduced that enables their deliberative meetings to continue to be held in private. Private deliberations help prevent pressure being applied by government or single issue groups, but the long-term trend to openness may result in deliberative meetings having to be public.

18. The meeting highlighted the difficulties created when a long-standing, reputable scientific organisation has to come to terms with pressure for openness and public scrutiny. Is it possible to combine free discussion during deliberations with freedom of access for outside organisations, including activist groups and government? This appeared to be an unresolved problem in the USA.


National Institutes of Health (NIH)

  • Anne Thomas, Associate Director for Communications and Secretary to the Council of Public Representatives

19. The NIH is one of eight health agencies in the Public Health Service, which in turn is part of the US Department of Health and Human Sciences. The NIH is a research organisation; its budget for 1999 was over $15.6 billion. Following a report by the Institute of Medicine in 1998 which recommended that the NIH have greater public participation in setting its research priorities, the NIH set up the Council of Public Representatives (COPR) which held its first meeting in April 1999.

20. The main function of the COPR is to bring public views to the debate on NIH funding priorities. The 20 COPR members (chosen from a group nominated by the various institutes of the NIH) ought not to represent particular interest groups, diseases or patient populations.

21. The COPR is a fully chartered Federal Advisory Committee, and under FACA regulations, all its meetings are held in public. It meets twice a year, and its members are paid an honorarium of $150/day plus travel and subsistence costs.

22. We learnt that funding for health research in the USA is increasing rapidly, mainly as a result of public lobbying through Congress. Public involvement in securing federal money for the NIH seems to have led naturally to expectations of being involved in setting priorities for its expenditure. As an attempt to increase public involvement, the COPR is still in its experimental stages, and it is not yet clear how much influence it will either demand or be allowed.

Meeting on Risk

  • Barry Beringer, Chief Counsel, House Committee on Science
  • Mike Rodemeyer, Democrat Legislative Director, House Committee on Science.

23. Barry Beringer and Mike Rodemeyer were both involved in the establishment of the Society of Risk Analysis.

24. The difficulty of communicating risk was a problem common to both the US and the United Kingdom. There was much debate in Congress on how federal agencies should address risk assessment. However, openness and transparency regarding the reasoning and assumptions used were important, especially when the available scientific knowledge was uncertain.

25. Under legislation passed in 1998 (the Shelby Amendment to the Appropriations Bill) the results of government-funded research now have to be made available to the public. This includes research to support risk assessment and regulations. There had been some debate on whether or not to standardise the risk assessment procedures used by different regulatory agencies.

26. Risk assessments were moving away from single numerical results; ranges and discussions of possibilities were becoming more common. Using comparative risks to communicate with the public could be successful, but finding convincing comparisons was rare.

27. Informative labelling of food products gave consumers more control over which risks they took, but industry and regulatory agencies were reluctant to adopt labelling on the basis of public concern rather than proven risk.

28. When discussing the role of the media in debates on risk and science, it was observed that the media had an increasing propensity to report on individual research papers without waiting for a scientific consensus to start to form. This practice led to increasing portrayal of "duelling scientists" in the media.

29. This meeting confirmed our growing impression of the importance of openness and transparency in the regulatory process.

Ambassador's lunch

  Over lunch at the Ambassador's residence, we met, among others:

  • Dr Laura Garwin, North American Editor, Nature
  • Rick Weiss, Washington Post
  • Dr Al Teich, Director of Science Policy, AAAS

30. During the discussion, Dr Garwin expressed the opinion that the public in the US was more naturally accepting of new technologies than in the United Kingdom. Emotion (and not just rational analysis) influenced attitudes to technological development, and was important in creating this difference between the two countries.

31. Rick Weiss said that the increase in corporate science was making some US scientists less keen to talk to the press, largely because of concerns over confidentiality. He added that when corporate scientists did talk to the press, their motivation tended to be promotional, not educational.

32. Dr Teich said that the public had made the link between science research and end products; now, when people heard about research, they wanted to hear how it would impact on their lives. Consequently, they also wanted to hear about how they could influence the research that would end up affecting them.

Afternoon meetings about GMOs

33. The different public reactions to GM food in the US and the United Kingdom were a recurring theme of our visit. Our visit coincided with some major changes in the US debate on GM food, notably the decision by the Food and Drug Administration to hold a series of public meetings on the subject. This followed soon after Monsanto had admitted to a public relations disaster over GM crops, and a major agricultural merchanting and food processing company, Archer Daniel Midland, had asked its suppliers to segregate GM from non-GM produce.

  (i) Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Worldwatch Institute

  • Peter Morris, Greenpeace
  • Sarah Newport, Friends of the Earth
  • Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute

34. The meeting with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Worldwatch Institute was organised to investigate the different role of NGOs in generating, or not generating, a debate on GMOs either side of the Atlantic.

35. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have a lower profile and less influence in the USA than they do in the United Kingdom. However, both have been involved in anti-GM campaigning, most notably Friends of the Earth's campaign to get food processors to say how much GM produce they use. The Worldwatch Institute is a US-based non-profit policy research organisation which provides public information on environmental issues.

36. Resource limitations meant that Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in the US could not campaign on all the issues they wanted. Until recently Greenpeace had given priority to climate change.

37. Food safety concerns had focussed on pesticides, rather than GM ingredients, and it was only stories about harmful effects on monarch butterflies that had raised media coverage of the GM crop issue.

38. There were different attitudes to the precautionary principle in the USA and Europe. In the US evidence of harmful effects was required before restrictions were put in place, whereas in the EU, there was a general presumption that a new technology needed to be shown to be safe before it could be adopted.

39. Although many of our other hosts attributed the lack of controversy over GMOs to public trust in regulators, the NGOs felt it was more to do with general ignorance of GM technology and its use in food production. It is difficult to choose between these interpretations; indeed they may well overlap since trust in regulatory structures may create public acquiescence over the issues. However, almost every indication we received on our visit was that a widespread debate on GMOs was beginning in the US, during which the extent of public trust should become more clear.

   (ii) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

  • Marcia Mulkey, Director, Pesticides Programme Office
  • Elizabeth Milewski, Senior Biotechnology Advisor, Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances

40. There are three agencies that each regulate different aspects of GM crops in the US: the Food and Drug Administration (food safety), the Environmental Protection Agency (pesticides, herbicides and environmental quality), and the US Department of Agriculture (horizontal transfer of genetic material). This divided responsibility is not helpful to confidence in the overall regulatory process.

41. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulatory authority for crops that have been genetically modified to produce their own pesticides or to be herbicide resistant (i.e. those crops that will change patterns of pesticide and herbicide use). The EPA regulates environmental exposure to these crops to ensure that there are no adverse effects to the environment or to any beneficial, non-targeted insects and other organisms (e.g. the monarch butterfly).

42. Increasingly articulate criticism of the EPA from outside meant that in addition to creating regulations that protected people, they now needed to explain the basis of their decisions. They appeared undaunted by the idea of more communication, but were very honest about the practical difficulties involved, especially (i) the need to change the culture throughout the organisation, rather than dumping responsibility on a small "communications group", (ii) the difficulty of getting political support for extra money for communication since it was seen as PR activity for the agency, and (iii) the scarcity of people who are good at communicating complex information to a wide audience.

43. Implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was valuable but took up a large amount of staff time. Most of the work involved handling requests and processing documentation.


National Science Foundation (NSF)

  • Dr Bennett Bertenthal, Assistant Director, Directorate of Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences
  • Dr William Bainbridge, Science Advisor, Directorate of Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences
  • Dr Daniel Newlon, Program Director, Directorate of Social Behaviour and Economic Sciences
  • Dr George Strawn, Executive Officer, Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering
  • Dr Craig Reynolds, Program Director, Directorate of Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering
  • Dr Susan Iacono, Program Director, Directorate of Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering
  • Jennifer Bond, Program Director, Division of Science Resource Studies
  • Bill Noxon, Media Relations and Public Information, Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
  • Melissa Pollock, Science and Engineering Indicators
  • Rose Gombay, Program Manager, Division of International Programs

44. The NSF funds research and education in science and engineering (including some social science) through grants, contracts and co-operative agreements. Its budget in 1998 was $3.4 billion—about 20 per cent of the federal support to academic institutions for basic research.

45. Through its Social, Behavioural, and Economic Sciences Directorate, the NSF compiles the main US source of data on science and technology. The NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs runs an "Outreach" programme. This includes a National Science and Technology Week, and projects in public education and formation of partnerships with government and media organisations.

46. An interesting point emerged from the preliminary results of the 1999 survey of public understanding and attitudes to science. Two groups were shown as feeling that the harm of genetic engineering might be outweighing its benefits: people who were college educated, and those with high interest in health issues.

47. The NSF are attempting to come to terms with the "new age of accountability" for science and Neal Lane's idea of "civic scientists". However, they are concerned about changes that might impinge on the primacy of peer review or reduce federal support for fundamental, as opposed to applied, science research. It was not clear what methods they thought would provide appropriate public involvement.

48. In the background to the debate on public involvement are concerns that public and Congressional support for science is becoming unbalanced in favour of health. Medical research has a more immediate relationship with the public than physical science research and may win any "popularity contest". A lot of the work on engaging the public seems directed at securing support for more money. In 1999-2000 US federal expenditure on R&D rose by 15 per cent for the NIH and only 6.6 per cent for the NSF.

Lunch to discuss access to information technology in the US—"the digital divide"

  • Larry Irving, Director, National Telecommunications & Information Administration
  • Tom Kalil, National Economic Council
  • Lori Perine, Senior Policy Advisor, Computing, Information and Communications, National Science and Technology Council

49. Although the IT revolution is having a major impact on the US economy, many people are being left behind. The US government was looking at ways to stop the gap between IT "haves" and "have nots" from widening still further. Some problems, such those faced by people without English as their first language, may be solved by technical developments in the near future. Other barriers to wider IT use, such as cost or lack of familiarity and training, were not so easy to overcome by technical advances alone.

50. Initiatives by the US government included the establishment of community technology centres (CTCs) in lower income areas; a programme to provide funds for the design of systems for people with disabilities; a federal initiative to provide internet links for all schools; and the E-rate (education rate), an initiative to provide Internet access at discounts of between 20 and 90 per cent to schools in lower income areas.

50. It is clear that the US faces the same problems as the United Kingdom in this field. No doubt those concerned in the United Kingdom Government will wish to keep in touch with the US initiatives designed to alleviate the problems identified.

Meeting with Congressman James Sensenbrenner (Republican, Wisconsin), Chairman, House Committee on Science

51. The brief meeting was most memorable for a lively exchange on the subject of GM food. Congressman Sensenbrenner forcibly expressed his view that the EU rejection of GM food was an example of trade protectionism. The visitors equally forcibly refuted his suggestion, stating that the issue of unsegregated crops, the lack of labelling and the consequent diminution of consumer choice were the most important factors.

52. Congressman Sensenbrenner believed this was a good time for science in the USA. The previous 20 years of research work were regarded by the US public as being responsible for the current US economic boom. Public perceptions of the value of science had made possible the increases in the science budget over the last 5 years.

53. The meeting was chiefly valuable for exposing the visiting Committee members to some of the political pressures on Congress regarding scientific issues.


Boston Museum of Science

  • David Ellis, President and Director of the Museum
  • Cary Sneider, Head of Programs Division
  • Caroline Alpert, Current Science and Technology Project Manager

54. The Museum of Science has more than 1.7 million visitors each year (making it the most-attended cultural attraction in Boston). The Museum is an independent, non-profit organisation with an annual budget of $25.5 million, 90 per cent of which comes from private sector income. The museum has over 600 hands-on exhibits, and a staff of "scientific interpreters".

55. As part of a project to teach aspects of the scientific process, the Museum is trying to illustrate (i) science as creative as well as deductive, and (ii) knowledge as an evolving quantity. Such ideas could indicate that scientists see truth as relative—"my truth is as good as yours". To guard against this it is necessary to emphasise the extent of scientific consensus, and to point out where maverick voices stand in relation to the majority view.

56. The Museum's "Current Science and Technology" project aims to make the Museum a place for the public to turn to for information about highly topical science issues. Exhibits normally take 3-5 years to develop, so different methods are needed to get up-to-the-minute science reflected in the Museum.

57. According to David Ellis, the hardest aspects of science to communicate to the public were risk and scale.

58. The Museum of Science is clearly well liked and respected in Boston, a city where science and technology have a high profile and are given credit for the economic revival. The issues which the Museum is attempting to address will be familiar to many similar organisations in the United Kingdom: balancing education with entertainment, attracting commercial sponsorship whilst maintaining independence, evaluating the effects and popularity of its exhibits, and keeping the content topical.

Meeting at the Kennedy School of Government

  • Professor Sheila Jasanoff, Science and Public Policy Program
  • Professor John Holdren, Director, Science and Public Policy Program
  • Arthur Daemmrich, Science and Public Policy Program
  • Professor William Clark, Environment and Natural Resources Program
  • Professor Michael Baram, Director, Centre for Law and Technology, Boston University
  • Dr Martin Teitel, Executive Director, Council for Responsible Genetics

59. The Kennedy School of Government has its origins in Harvard University's Graduate School of Public Administration (established 1936). The School encompasses 10 research centres and institutes and has more than 800 students. Areas of particular research interest at the Kennedy School's Science, Technology and Public Policy Program include legal, political, and cultural studies of science and technology; science and technology policy processes; and work on nuclear energy, climate change, information technology, and sustainability.

60. The Council for Responsible Genetics is a citizens' organisation founded in 1981 to foster public debate about the social, ethical and environmental impacts of new genetics technologies.

61. The meeting provided the visiting party with a description of the many different ways the public could interact with science policy in the USA. Many of our other hosts had referred to "openness", and this meeting gave a picture of what this meant in practice. Where science is carried out in support of general public objectives (e.g. setting environmental standards), the public can have a direct role through the administrative hearings while policies are formulated, and judicial review after policies are announced. The FACA and FOIA help the public (often as represented by activist organisations) participate in these processes. For decisions about which parts of science to fund, public participation occurs through lobbying Congress and through oversight of funding organisations.

62. Trust in regulatory agencies was discussed at length. Government responses to public mistrust in the 1960s had created the current structure of the agencies, and had led to the Freedom of Information Act (1966), the Federal Advisory Committees Act (1972), and the Government in the Sunshine Act (1976). Regulators in the US were not trusted to be error free, but rather were thought to have a useful role in protecting the public. Openness meant pressure groups were able to scrutinise the detailed aspects of the regulators' work, and legal redress for errors was available. Thus, the regulators fitted into a framework of different institutions that, when viewed as a whole, built public trust.

63. The role of the US legal system was clearly important. It provided various opportunities for the public to influence science, particularly when government permits or standards were being subjected to judicial review, or when tort laws were invoked to provide compensatory or punitive damages.

64. Several key points emerged:

  • Opportunities for individuals to take cases to court at low cost were increased by contingency fees; and class actions offered remedies for groups not in a position to sue as individuals.
  • Legal routes were available to companies as well as individuals. Monsanto had used litigation to prevent labelling on milk from cows treated with the hormone bovine somatotrophin (BST).
  • Although the legal process did not directly affect basic research and development, organisations were aware of the prospect of court actions, and were careful to do work in such a way that legal problems would be avoided in the future.
  • Confidence of future redress being available through the courts made the public less resistant to science and technology developments.

65. It was clear that individual institutions, legislation or practices that contributed to the culture of openness in the US should not be considered in isolation; attempts to transfer particular aspects of the US process to the United Kingdom would be unwise.

Boston Globe

  • Doug Bailey, Health and Science Editor
  • Judy Foreman, Leah Garnett, Karen Hsu, Steve Reucroft, Richard Saltus, John Swain, and John Yemma (all journalists at the Boston Globe)

66. The Boston Globe is a broadsheet newspaper. In addition to its general coverage of science, the Globe produces a weekly Science and Health section. The Boston area has a large number of high-tech companies and research institutions, and the level of interest in science among its readers tends to be high.

67. The roles of newspapers in the United Kingdom and the US have significant differences. Readership in the US is falling, in contrast to the United Kingdom where interest in all forms of reading, especially newspapers, is remarkably high. The United Kingdom's press is dominated by a small number of national newspapers, many of which take strong editorial lines on stories, and all of which are very aware of what the others are covering. In this situation, a single article can create a response which stimulates more and more coverage, a "snowball" effect. In the US, there are few national newspapers, and these tend not to dominate a media culture characterised by extreme diversity. The writing tends to have less of an editorial slant, and so "snowballing" stories or serieses of campaigning articles are far less common.

68. The Globe journalists felt that in the US there was a greater requirement to "show your working" in an article—any sensational assertions needed to be backed up and put into context with views from other sources. However, problems of headlines being written by sub-editors and failing to reflect the content of a story were common to both countries.

69. Although the Committee had heard repeatedly in the United Kingdom about how much better press access to scientists was in the US than in the United Kingdom, this feeling did not come across strongly in our meeting with the Globe.

Consul General's Dinner

70. Over dinner at the Consul General's residence, we met:

  • Professor Jeremy Knowles CBE, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University
  • Dr Alison Taunton-Rigby, President and CEO, Aquila Biopharmaceuticals
  • Dr Richard Roberts, Research Director, New England Biolabs Inc.
  • Dr Richard Sclove, Founder and Research Director, the Loka Institute
  • Dr Donald Fraser, Director, Boston Photonics Centre
  • Dr Tom Durant, Assistant Director, Massachusetts General Hospital

71. The lively after-dinner discussion highlighted concerns about future public debates on biotechnology in the US. The biotechnology community are clearly alarmed and irritated at the prospect of what they would condemn as an ill-informed, non-scientific debate on their work being exported from the United Kingdom to the US. Their response is to try to educate the public and point out the economic and health benefits which new biotechnology will bring.


Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)

  • Dr David Blumenthal, Director of the MGH-Partners Institute of Health Policy
  • Dr John Potts, Director of Research, MGH
  • Dr David Glass, Associate Director, Corporate Sponsored Research and Licensing
  • Dr Greg Koski
  • Dr Janet Miller
  • Peggy Slasman, Chief Public Affairs Officer
  • Dr Tom Durant, Assistant Director, MGH

72. The Massachusetts General Hospital is one of the leading research hospitals in the US. It is the largest non-governmental employer in Boston with over 10,000 employees. The MGH has the largest hospital-based research programme in the US (annual budget over $200 million)—it receives more funds from the NIH than any other independent US hospital. Founded in 1811, it is the oldest and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH runs public education programmes on disease prevention and other healthcare issues.

73. Under the present funding arrangements, the public lobbies the Appropriations Committee in Congress over the total budget, but scientists at the NIH control its distribution. There was little awareness of the NIH's new Council of Public Representatives (COPR), but the MGH did highlight the councils which looked at the distribution of grant awards within each NIH institute: these were under a statutory obligation to include lay members.

74. Stem cell research was cited as an area where research was being held back by public concerns. The question of functional genomics needed to be handled carefully, since it raised questions of individual rights. There was concern about the disparity between the enthusiasm of the science community for this work and its demonstrated benefits to patients.

75. The overall message we received from the MGH was that when considering communications, public relations and trust, it was vital that organisations and individuals pay attention to how they handled errors that affected the public. Although errors should be minimised, a certain number were inevitable, and these should be dealt with swiftly, honestly and openly. Following the lead of politicians by employing "spin doctors" would have disastrous results for public trust in the medical community.

Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC)

  • Janice Bourque, Executive Director, MBC
  • Stephen Mulloney, Manager, Government Relations and External Communications
  • Dr Una Ryan, President and CEO, Avant Immunotheraputics Inc.
  • Loretta McLaughlin
  • Andrews Grinstead
  • Joseph Donovan, Director, Emerging Technology Development at the Massachusetts Office of Business Development

76. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC) is a non-profit trade association for biotechnology companies. It was founded in 1985, and now has 245 members. The MBC runs a number of public forums to provide business leaders, parents and community leaders with information about the biotechnology industry, its economic impact and the career opportunities it affords in Massachusetts. During election years, the MBC arranges meetings between representatives from the biotechnology industries and candidates to address issues of legislation and government regulation.

77. Biotechnology companies aroused a great deal of public interest since they were at the cutting edge of technology. It was thought that the US public generally liked science because it was successful, and not because they were well informed about it or because they lacked reasons to be suspicious of scientists (e.g. those from tobacco companies).

78. Although the MBC membership includes organisations working on both medical and food applications of biotechnology, the two areas sometimes needed to be considered separately. The public thought scientists involved in medical research were working towards the public good, but those working on food were less well regarded—there was no shortage of food in the US, whereas people were still falling ill!

79. Although the MBC were aware that public concerns over GM food that had been raised in the United Kingdom could soon hit the US, communication that involved listening to the public was not their main priority; educating the press and opinion formers about the benefits of biotechnology was their primary role.


80. The Committee members gained many insights into how very similar issues are regarded and handled in the US as compared with the United Kingdom.. Perhaps the most important message was the importance attached, both philosophically and practically, to the concepts of openness and transparency. The Freedom of Information Act, the Government in the Sunshine Act and the Federal Advisory Committees Act have built up a tradition of access to the public: information about regulatory agencies' decisions and the science on which they are based has to be made available, and committees which provide advice to federal government must meet in public. Even when only a few people request information or attend meetings, the knowledge that the information is available and the meetings are open is itself reassuring.

81. On the other hand, we were less impressed by the impact of public lobbying on the distribution of research moneys, where, in particular, the line-by-line scrutiny of Congress can significantly distort priorities. The use of the courtroom as a forum in which to play out science disputes is another practice which appeared undesirable. In our opinion litigation usually represents a failure of regulation; time-consuming, expensive legal disputes would not remedy the types of controversies we have been concerned about in our inquiry.

82. We were, finally, struck by the extent to which the desire for improved communication between science and society in the US parallels that in the United Kingdom, and that in both countries there is a recognition that existing techniques have many limitations.

31 January 2000

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