Science needs democracy

February 7, 2008

Lord Winston gets himself Brownie points by declaring that scientists should heed the public's fears (News, 24 January). Yet last month, when we raised the legitimate concern that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill would allow the first steps towards the creation of genetically modified babies, he accused us of "scaremongering".

I never scaremonger, on principle, and the Government's own documents have admitted that allowing scientists to develop the technology to create GM babies is the reason it has removed the prohibition on genetic modification of embryos in the Bill. The temporary retention of the ban on creation of GM babies is no reassurance, since it is based not on ethical/social grounds but on safety grounds - hence the need to work on embryos to improve the technology.

The allegation of scaremongering is part of scientists' time-honoured trick to avoid democratic debate on science policy when it really matters, that is, at the stage of beginning research in a particular area. At this point they insist that concerns are "irrational". When the technology is mature, they present a fait accompli and say that it is inevitable, and that if we ban it here, Britain will lose out. So, sorry, ethics will have to bend, yet again.

The lack of sincerity in the scientific community's response to public concerns shows through in the description of public concerns as "fears". Despite public engagement in science, scientists' attitudes have changed not one whit. Scratch a scientist and they will tell you that they are rational and anyone who criticises science is irrational. What we need is not for scientists to listen to our "fears", thank you very much, but a thoroughgoing democratic control over science.

David King, Director, Human Genetics Alert.

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