'Clarify scientific advice to reassure public'

October 7, 2005

Politicians and scientists need to be more open about the limits of the Government's scientific advice if scare stories about new technologies, foods and therapies are to be avoided in future, Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, said this week.

At a fringe meeting at the conference, Mr Lansley said that public scepticism about science had grown in the decade since the BSE crisis. He urged politicians and scientists to do more to explain the risks.

Politicians should "champion" science, he said, but should also be clearer with the public that scientific advice had its limits and could be challenged by other research.

Mr Lansley said that the public's understanding of the "precautionary principle" and its aversion to risk had grown. But people's awareness of the "principle of proportionality" - understanding the differing scale of those risks - had not kept pace, he said.

"Within the past decade, public confidence in science has declined, from an initial lack of confidence in the handling of the BSE disaster about ten years ago," Mr Lansley said. "It brought scientific expressions of risk into disrepute... in the public mind science is now used to disguise risks."

His comments came at the meeting on science and the media hosted by the Social Market Foundation think-tank.

Another speaker, David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, described how the reporting of science could either appeal to readers' and viewers' emotions, by employing shocking headlines and images, or could encourage reasoned analysis by offering balanced articles that weighed up the risks.

But Professor Ball, who served on a Government advisory panel about dealing with radioactive waste, said that there was also a danger in trying to make detailed scientific information available to the public.

"Trying to communicate with everybody will sometimes mean a dumbing down of information in the name of inclusivity," he said.


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