Leader: Science deserves greater support

November 7, 2003

The power of modern science is growing rapidly, and is set to accelerate with new knowledge from genetics, computing, nanotechnology and other fields. These developments improve lives and are vital to economic success, so the 114 scientists who wrote to the prime minister last week deserve a hearing if they find the climate for research in Britain too hostile (back page).

The new organisation behind the letter, Sense About Science, should follow up by broadening its appeal. The signatories are almost all biologists and most of them work in plant science. Their letter was prompted by the government's retreat from support for genetically modified crops - itself a consequence of the public's unease about their introduction. They are right to point to the media's poor understanding of science as a contributor to the ill-informed debate about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, but wrong to draw the same conclusions about medical retention of body parts. In this case, public alarm was prompted by errors made by scientists themselves.

Biologists are also wrong to think that public unease about science is new.

While plant breeders have led innocent lives away from the media glare, physicists have been exposed to hostility since the development of nuclear weapons. It is possible - as was the case with nuclear power - that not all the benefits promised by current developments in the life sciences will turn out as anticipated.

On the evidence so far, there is little credit for anyone involved in the GM tale. Scientists imagined that the public, and even the green movement, would support the technology because of its scope to increase yields and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. Better public engagement in advance would have saved much of the disillusionment scientists are now feeling. Politicians also failed to anticipate the public reaction - an error perhaps compounded by the enthusiasm of science minister Lord Sainsbury for GM - and the government is open to accusations of cowardice as a result. Retailers have seen that the fastest way to increase sales is by boasting that their shelves are free of GM products, and it is hard to argue against their logic.

In the long term, the UK needs to spend more on science and to ensure that it is a good base for research in other ways, for example by doing more to prevent illegal action against researchers. Governments can do only some of the things needed to make British research more confident and successful, and to ensure that top scientists want to come to the UK and stay here. But Sense About Science is entitled to demand that both their words and their deeds are more forceful.

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