Leader: Peer, not public, review

December 12, 2003

In his position as one of the most recognisable faces of British science, Lord Winston could do a lot of damage. He may be right that public mistrust of science is at an all-time high, (although Royal Society president Lord May argued in the House of Lords this week that such claims were largely nonsense). But the solution Lord Winston is proposing is not the answer.

He wants the public to have the overall say in what scientists should and should not be able to do. This might work with those members of the public who take the time to inform themselves about scientific issues, but what about the ones who don't?

Public opinion may be anti-science, yet such a stance often comes directly from lobby groups and exaggerated tabloid scare stories. If the current controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine has taught us anything, it is that the public does not always know best.

Scientific research is a central function of an advanced society, and nobody has yet come up with a better way to decide what science to carry out than by expert peer review. There may be a democratic deficit where the public does not approve of the science being carried out. But the same goes for every issue in public life from transport policy to Iraq.

Rather than giving up on science communication, Lord Winston should be encouraging scientists to ramp up their efforts in this vital area. The public does, of course, have a right to information about the sort of research that their taxes are funding and the regulation that exists to control it. But sacrificing science to the opinion polls is both dangerous and unnecessary.

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