Heed public's fears, Winston urges

Scientists need to be better at recognising and responding to the public's fears, according to Lord Winston.

January 24, 2008

In a wide-ranging speech last week at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce on the interaction between science and society, Lord Winston said it was "vital" for academics to reach out to the public and respond to their concerns.

Scientists need to recognise that they are citizens and that they have to act as citizens to gain greater public trust, he told the audience.

"We need to actually understand how society feels," Lord Winston said.

The fertility expert, author and broadcaster suggested that the public's fears over nuclear power are being ignored by the academic community.

He said that although the Government's go-ahead for nuclear power "was like a breath of fresh air to many scientists, there has to be a question of how you understand public fears and how you bring the public on side. We cannot ignore (this) ... (It) will be seen as a paradigm for the rest of science."

Lord Winston, a Labour peer and government whip in the House of Lords, also aired a number of concerns about the Government's approach to science - including the short-sightedness of recent cuts in physics programmes and the damage that could be done to science if it were motivated solely by its potential economic impact.

"Science that is purely driven by economic measures is really a risky process for our society," he said.

The presenter of BBC television shows such as The Human Body also expressed concern about reduced funding for BBC science programming. In addition, he said he regretted that scientists who undertake animal research are not prepared to put their heads above the parapet and speak out in defence of their work against attacks by animal rights extremists.

He added scientists and the Government had different remits. "I think we need to recognise that being too close to the Government can pose risks," he said, adding that scientists' contributions towards public engagement needed to be adequately recognised.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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