A puree genius at work. Tom Wakeford warns that the government must rethink the relationship between scientists and the public
I believe that scientists have as much to learn about the needs of society, as society has to know about the need for science." With these words, John Battle, engineer's son and now minister for science, last week launched the government's public consultation on the future of the biosciences. After 18 years of science being seen as having no accountability to citizens beyond informing them of its latest achievements, democratic participation is back on the policy-making agenda.
Scientists these days are as likely to be advising politicians about the health risks arising from pesticides as to be investigating methods of boosting agricultural output. As the case of BSE showed, governments increasingly appeal to the supposed objectivity of such scientific expertise as a convenient means of evading responsibility for making decisions themselves. This has contributed to the lack of public confidence in science.
People's lives increasingly revolve around the products of science, yet they have grown to distrust many of the official and commercial sources from which they have traditionally received their information. From the Brent Spar oil platform incident to genetically modified foods, conflicting risk assessments have inspired deep public concern. And this general lack of positive images of science and scientists is thought to be one of the reasons why the crisis in university recruitment in many subjects within science, engineering and technology continues.
The initial response of government and scientific bodies to the public's low regard for them was to launch the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) initiative. Under the Tories, these initiatives were based on the deficit model. The public, PUSites suggested, simply suffer from a lack of scientific facts. This influential group also argued that the engendering of public debate or critical discussions about the goals of scientific research should be avoided in favour of clear presentation of information. After ten years of PUS, and a continuing decline in all key indicators of the public's confidence in science, new Labour came to power seeing that a fresh approach was required.
John Battle's credentials both as an evangelist for science, and for ensuring science works for the common good, rather than for vested interests, seem excellent. As a backbencher, he commissioned research which showed that a local factory was endangering the health of his constituents. He successfully campaigned for its practices to be cleaned up. It therefore came as little surprise that the minister's first significant action relating to the science-citizen interface was the establishment of a new style of public consultation. Although backing the Downing Street view that biotechnology is potentially a key sector in which British industry can flourish, Battle appears to want to ensure that only those technologies which are, and are seen to be, in the public interest, are pursued. Governments who support a technology which informed citizens subsequently reject risk wasting money and popular credibility.
Citizens' juries are a tool that has been popular with new Labour advisers for several years. Their main democratic feature is that they allow citizens themselves, rather than politicians, to define what is in the public interest. The Citizen Foresight project, run earlier this year, involved the establishment of a citizens' jury to discuss, among other issues, the use of genetic engineering in food production.
Following the guidelines for such initiatives laid down by the Institute of Public Policy Research, 12 people were randomly selected without being told what subject they were going to discuss. Over ten weekly sessions they then heard evidence from expert witnesses. A panel of stakeholders including Sainsbury's, the National Farmers Union, the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the Consumers' Association agreed that these witnesses, including Ben Miflin, director of the Institute for Arable Crops Research and Janet Bainbridge, chair of the government's Advisery Committee on Novel Processes and Foods, provided a fair balance of views. Having cross-questioned the witnesses and deliberated on the issues, the jury drafted its own conclusions, some unanimous, some agreed by a majority, which have now been presented to the government. They concluded that genetically modified (GM) foods provide no benefit to the consumer and that the risks they pose, both to long-term human health and the environment are unknown.The panel was unanimous that GM foods were unnecessary. However, they were not against laboratory research continuing into possible future benefits.
This and similar citizens' juries are an innovative means of engendering a public understanding of science; one that treats people as intelligent adults, while also allowing them a genuine opportunity to articulate their informed views about what directions scientific and technological research should take in the future.
The government's biosciences consultation seems likely to include a further exercise based on this model, piloted at the universities of Glamorgan and East London. Because this exercise will examine the biosciences, presumably including biotechnology, it will have to be careful to allow the public to distinguish between genetic engineering directed towards medical, as opposed to agricultural, applications.
There are fundamental differences in each case as to who are the risk-takers and who are the beneficiaries. In medical genetics, the public may have an eventual gain in terms of better diagnoses and treatment. By contrast, in agriculture the only clear beneficiaries of GM crops are agrochemical companies, who get to retain their market share, while the public, and the environment, is left with the potential risks to their health. While Monsanto's Pounds 31 million advertising campaign claims that their new crops will feed the world, there is not a single serious academic study that can support such a claim, and many that suggest such technologies would make global sustainability harder to achieve.
John Battle must be careful that his consultation is seen as un-biased and open-minded. The composition of the steering group (THES, July 10) has already been criticised by consumer and environmental groups, who point to its domination by biotechnology research and industry representatives. Why, for example, are consumers represented by a lone voice from the Women's Institute?
This consultation has the potential to start building Britain a reputation as a world leader in the sophistication with which it manages the relationship between science, technology and its citizens.
However, the worst case scenario is that it will be perceived, especially given John Battle's position as a minister within the anti-regulatory DTI, as a cynical exercise in softening up public opinion for the un-reflexive onward march of biotechnology. Whatever the issue, there is no substitute for democracy.
Tom Wakeford is on the government's Biosciences Steering Group and a lecturer in the faculty of science and health at the University of East London.