Leader: The limits of openness

September 10, 2004

The British Association for the Advancement of Science did well to choose "responsibility and science" as the theme for its meeting this week in Exeter. In the modern world, people are surrounded by evidence that science works, from new drugs to mobile telephones. But success has brought less trust of science rather than more, as its power apparently outstrips society's ability to cope with the possibilities it produces. Sometimes scientists bring distrust on themselves. Unnecessary confidentiality for clinical trials, criticised this week, is a hangover from an age of secret science that is no longer acceptable. Scepticism about science is related to distrust of the governments and corporations that fund research and often appear to control it. However, the best science is an open activity that is improved by peer review and by being explained to the public who pay for it. The principle of public engagement in science is now accepted almost universally.

But as we report this week, the use of open information sources by violent criminals gathering data on scientists as possible victims threatens this openness and the scientific endeavour itself. Although scientists must live up to their responsibilities, society needs more awareness of the benefits that science brings and the risks of curtailing it. However imperfect, science is an essential part of a successful society. Ensuring that it prospers is a duty that scientists, governments and society at large should take on more actively.

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