Public debate, yes. Consensus on research, no

November 16, 2007

Most people, bar flat-earthers, assorted creationists and the incurably romantic, believe that science harnessed to the aims of a just society is "a good thing". In fact, as Science Minister Ian Pearson reminded an audience in London last week, more than 85 per cent of Britons think science makes a positive contribution to society, according to a recent survey. In all probability, therefore, few of us would disagree with the latest initiatives from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. In particular, the ministry's attempts to inculcate an appreciation of science and engineering in school pupils, its efforts to improve scientific literacy and engage the public in a dialogue with scientists seem entirely appropriate.

As the minister pointed out, there are "valid concerns and genuine ethical dilemmas" in much of the science that affects people's lives. It is inconceivable that subjects such as artificial intelligence, genetically modified food and stem-cell research would not be debated among the wider public and Parliament or that academics would not play a vociferous part in that discussion.

It is also undeniable that in the past researchers have not always felt it necessary to communicate the intent and consequences of their research and, in the worst cases, failed to ask those whom they experimented on for their consent. But those days are long gone. Nowadays, even undergraduate research can be subject to rigorous scrutiny and the most innocuous piece of research delayed by the punctilious deliberations of university ethics committees. Whatever failings ministers and the wider public assume academe still has, they would be wise not to include a lack of regard for correct procedure among them.

In contrast, much of the media - presumably an important partner in any scientific dialogue with the public - air any amount of bad science and dubious findings, often in the most exploitative and intrusive way possible, with little in the way of general dissent. Admittedly, that is hardly the Government's fault. But it is galling to be asked to spend more time debating with the public when the message is so often deliberately distorted or sensationalised.

The most intriguing part of Mr Pearson's address was his call for a new consensus on science's place within society. What exactly would that entail? He rightly identified science and technology's central role in the knowledge economy and the role it can and should play in developing a progressive society. But at the same time he seemed to imply that however loud scientists' protestations may be, they would not always convince.

The minister acknowledged that there were "real dangers" that any restraints on UK science would lead to the country lagging behind others in certain areas. But he suggested, that if it were a genuine debate between science and the public, "we can't have it both ways", presumably meaning that the academic community could not discuss, then refuse to listen, if they didn't like what they were hearing.

Science must operate within society and not stand apart from it. It would not be "a good thing" to return to the days of the unfettered experiment and uncommunicative academic. However, aspiring to a consensus is neither achievable nor desirable. Science that is ethically difficult is by its very nature unlikely to command universal approval. To seek consensus, therefore, would seem futile. Debate, discuss, disseminate and explain by all means. But at some point a decision has to be made - and Parliament, rather than the court of public opinion - should make it.

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