Get busy restoring trust fund

December 6, 2002

Scientists must be more robust and less defensive to counter public suspicion, argues Derek Burke

Once upon a time, scientists thought that all we had to do was to decide whether a novel food or process was safe or not, and that the consumer would accept that we, the experts, knew best. But times have changed. The result has been a plethora of initiatives whose mantra is transparency, accountability and inclusivity. These, however, are just descriptions of processes; they do not deal with the underlying problems.

One of these is our concern about what is natural. A romantic view of nature, which sees everything "natural" as good and anything tampered with by man as bad, is behind the widespread view that genetic modification is "interference". We must reflect on what we mean by natural.

Another underlying problem is trust. In science, the situation has reached such a nadir that we willingly accept that people have lost all faith in the scientific and political regulatory process. But society cannot function without some trust in experts. Can we really re-create trust through a process that is just transparent, accountable and inclusive? And don't transparency, accountability and inclusivity pose their own risks?

As philosopher Onora O'Neill has said, our so-called organs of transparency can spread misinformation and disinformation as well as information, and too much focus on accountability can lead to bureaucracy and inefficiency. There have been some excellent changes: all government committees now consult routinely in their decision-making, they hold regular public meetings, and they include consumer representatives.

But there are problems. People tell me that when these committees meet in public, the gatherings are dominated by the same small number of people. And who is to nominate "the consumer representative"?

These days, any link between the scientific members of these committees and industry is criticised by pressure groups as inevitably compromising their judgement, even if the link is no more than the support of one research student in a large group. I know two junior ministers who will not appoint to any government advisory committee anyone with any link at all to industry because they regard them as inevitably tainted. Not surprisingly, it is becoming very difficult to find anyone suitable to join the committees, particularly since in the UK we have been pressed for some years now to build links between universities and industry.

All these procedures increase the workload of committee members, who are mainly unpaid academics. And what was once seen as appropriate public service now exposes one to endless criticism - witness last week's furore over the GM trials. We are making the system so complicated that it is becoming unworkable. Soon, the only people who will have time to put into this complex process will be those who have another agenda, which is to so radicalise the process that it ceases to be useful for policy-makers.

How can we counter this climate of suspicion? We need new ideas: the mantra of transparency, accountability and inclusivity is not a magic formula. We need to recognise that everyone brings their values as well as their interests to the table and to stop treating scientists as the only ones with bias. Scientists will have to become more robust, more prepared to defend ourselves and our probity, be less defensive and less prepared to accept that everything we do is tainted by self-interest or bias. There is no more ground to be given. We must be much more professional in working with the media. And we must be prepared to better police our own patch.

One final problem is that politicians who cannot see an easy way round a question have passed it down to a supposedly representative body in the hope that solutions will emerge and they will escape blame. But politicians are elected and paid to balance interests and make difficult decisions. We have to hold them to that.

Derek Burke was vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia from 1987 to1995 and chairman of the government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes in 1989-97.

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