A very public contract

December 8, 2000

Society has given science a 'licence to practise', but what should the conditions of that licence be? Aaron Klug considers the future.

One of the highlights of the year was a report by the House of Lords science and technology select committee on science and society. This valuably captured and expounded a theme that the Royal Society has been concerned with for some time and that has been one of the topics in my previous anniversary addresses: the role of the "general public" in scientific controversy. I am delighted to announce that our activities in this area have received a major boost through a most generous gift - £1 million over five years - from the Kohn Foundation. This has enabled us to create a science in society committee, chaired by Sir Paul Nurse, to take forward a range of initiatives aimed at facilitating this vital dialogue.

As the Lords report stresses, the dialogue is about science's "licence to practise". Science is, necessarily, run by scientists, but it is ultimately society that allows science to go ahead, and we need to make sure that it goes on doing so. So we need input from non-experts to make sure we are aware of the boundaries to our licence; and we need good channels of communication if we want to extend those boundaries, for example, into new areas of research, such as embryonic stem cells, or new research methods such as genetically modified animals.

Moreover, the public has expectations of how it will benefit from its investment in research. We must be aware of these expectations, and we should pay attention to them when setting broad research priorities. Priorities have to take account of other things, too - such as whether the science is timely, whether the necessary skills and equipment exist and whether the work is likely to prove worthwhile and is affordable - but to disregard public expectations altogether would be careless. Nevertheless, we must not lose our nerve and concentrate on research that appears relevant. The research agenda should be set by scientists, and they should have the freedom to change it in the light of new discoveries. The advances of science have improved human health and welfare and relieved the burdens of labour and facilitated travel and communication. Many of these advances have come not from a direct attack, but from quite unexpected directions. The microwave oven did not come from someone trying to make a more efficient stove, nor the laser from trying to make a brighter light.

What we need to do is to engage in consultation and dialogue. These are part of leadership, but not a substitute for it. Policy-makers still have to make policy, governments still have to govern. The society's new initiative responds to a demand for more public involvement in the uses of science and more public accountability and transparency from science. It is part of science's "social contract".

The recent heavy rains and flooding have sparked a bout of media interest in climate change and global warming. We should take advantage of this. The whole area is one where the science is difficult and the politics extremely difficult: but the issues are becoming increasingly urgent and must be faced.

There is incontrovertible evidence that global warming is occurring and that it is related to massively increased emissions of greenhouse gases. There may be long-term climate changes taking place, but the physics of increased emissions is simple. As mankind puts out 8 billion tonnes of carbon each year into the atmosphere, there is a greenhouse effect and the temperature of the earth and sea will rise. The calculations agree with what has been observed. This is not the only environmental problem facing us, but it is certainly one of the biggest.

In two reports - published in June 1999 and October 2000 - the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have spelt out the implications of carbon dioxide emission targets for United Kingdom energy policy, and in particular for electricity generation. The recent European Union draft directive on renewable energy is useful as far as it goes, but it leaves key issues untouched. Allowing energy policy to drift along a business-as-usual course is not a sane option. If we are serious about tackling the carbon dioxide issue, we must invest seriously in all energy technologies, from nuclear to renewables; we must focus economic incentives on penalising carbon emission rather than overall energy production. Mankind must learn to live on earth without destroying it.

Energy is not the only topic where "science and society" issues arise. The debate on the possible therapeutic use of stem cells is another that is active - an example of a debate about the boundaries to science's licence to practise. The health effects of depleted uranium is a third, and there is great public interest in the progress of our working group on the subject; I look forward to its report next year. The fate of expert scientific advice in the BSE/CJD story shows some of the difficulties that a science-society dialogue has to overcome, and we are studying the 16 volumes of the Phillips report diligently to see what lessons can be learnt.

The Royal Society is involved. We have set our face on being involved in controversial issues, and that is not going to change. Our unique attribute of access to the best of UK and global science carries a moral obligation to use that resource to the public good. We were established in 1660 to embody the radical notion that critical observation and experiment were the most secure routes to knowledge about the natural world. That remains our guiding principle, and it remains radical. It also remains highly pertinent to today's needs.

This is an edited extract from Sir Aaron Klug's final anniversary address as outgoing president of the Royal Society.

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