Only openness and integrity will reassure public

November 3, 2000

University scientists reading Lord Phillips's report might feel that the blame for the BSE crisis can be placed elsewhere - on politicians, civil servants and government scientists, all patronisingly bent on protecting the food industry by not panicking the public. But the BSE case contains too much error and folly for anyone to escape lightly.

Biologists' difficulty in accepting prions as the transmitter of spongiform disease was a key factor in the disaster. While the science was contested, it was inevitably difficult for scientists to be unambiguously confident in public about the awful hazard we might be facing. It was only in 1997 that the Nobel prize for medicine was awarded for the discovery of prions. Had the importance of prions been recognised earlier, or the uncertainty more robustly proclaimed, politicians and civil servants would not have been able to dismiss fears so glibly.

The main lesson of the crisis is that university scientists must be made to feel more confident in discussing uncertainty in public. The government machine is too willing to pretend to certainty where none exists and to sit on inconvenient doubt. The long-running argument over the hazards associated with incinerators is another such issue that requires open debate. Clusters of disease around incinerators have been known - and ignored - for too long. Vested interests are part of the problem, whether those of industry, pressure groups or governments, as Greg Philo and David Miller point out (pages 22-23).

It has, for example, taken 25 years and a marked increase in exceptional weather for public authorities to recognise - as deputy prime minister John Prescott did first at the Kyoto climate conference and again in the House of Commons this week - that global warming is not just an academic theory. It remains to be seen whether Mr Prescott and his colleagues will stick to environmentally friendly fuel policies in the face of the Countryside Alliance and the road hauliers and provide the investment in infrastructure needed to cope with more extreme conditions.

The other reason for the failure of scientists to speak up is the weakness of universities in defending their research staff. Cutting-edge research that may seem obscure can have direct human effects, and scientists who make significant breakthroughs can be marginalised at critical moments. Given all the uncertainties that surround their work, if scientists are to make their voices heard in a timely way so that members of the public can assess the risks they face, someone needs to ensure that scientists do not suffer for it.

This raises again the issue of academic freedom. University managers, who are the only realistic candidates for the role of doughty defenders, are, if anything, more unpopular with academics than interfering funders. Universities that are tough about the terms of the research contracts entered into by staff, resisting funders' wish to attach conditions, may risk losing the contract and the researcher. Yet it is only university leaders who can ensure that the public and private sector understand the importance of open communication and who can protect their staff from unwarranted pressures. If they do not, why should people who are already under stress from too many directions be willing to speak out?

One of the best ways to underwrite integrity is to secure as many diverse funding sources for university research as possible. In recent years, the United Kingdom has been blessed by the growth of the Wellcome Trust, a research charity with government-scale funds and a mind of its own. In social science, where the sums of money are smaller, the likes of Joseph Rowntree and Nuffield have long had a similar role. Nothing encourages researchers to be tough with funders so much as the knowledge that there are others available.

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