Public 'must have say on science'

September 3, 2004

Members of the public should have a say in the work of UK scientists as part of a radical reform of the research councils proposed this week by think tank Demos.

The Demos report argues that unless the composition of research councils is changed to include lay members, new technologies risk being rejected by a public who feel disconnected from important issues.

The report, launched on the eve of the British Association Festival of Science, says too many academic scientists and industrialists monopolise top committees. It says these need to be opened to more diverse forms of expertise.

It says it is unacceptable to rule out wider public scrutiny on the basis that topics are too technical.

Jonathon Porritt, a commentator on environmental issues, said: "The grotesque misallocation of money in farming and energy research over the last 30 years has led to a lack of understanding about organic farming and renewable energy resources. The collective irresponsibility in these areas lies largely with those in the research councils."

Some research councils are making progress. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has an advisory group of non-scientists looking at ethics while the Medical Research Council has one exploring public involvement in peer-review.

But Barbara Young, of the Environment Agency, said: "We need to be more innovative and deal with the issues the public want to deal with."

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