Research: society has right to say 'no'

November 16, 2007

Science Minister calls for development of a consensus on ethically sensitive areas. Zoe Corbyn reports. There are likely to be areas in the future that academics will have to accept are off limits for research because the public deems them to be unacceptable, Ian Pearson, the Science Minister, has said.

The minister used a detailed speech on science policy to call for development of a "new consensus" on science's place within society, saying that scientists and the Government needed to engage in early-stage dialogue and recognise there would be "valid concerns and genuine ethical dilemmas in certain areas of research".

He told an audience gathered for the first Sir Gareth Roberts science lecture this month that there might be areas that scientists believed were "right and proper" for research but that the wider community would not be convinced. "We've got to be prepared to accept the fact ... It isn't just about talking longer and louder and believing that if you explain more then people will always agree with you, because they won't always agree with you."

He said he would like dialogue to bring understanding, acceptance and agreement in some potentially very controversial areas of future research, but he accepted that ethical considerations and other concerns could also mean a "failure to convince".

He called for debate to develop a new vision for what the UK should be trying to achieve in the "science and society" arena and offered his initial thoughts about a society that was "excited about science", valued "its importance to our economic and social well-being", felt "confident in its use", and supported "a representative, well-qualified scientific workforce".

But Sir Tom McKillop, the president of the Science Council, warned that competition meant the UK could not afford to spend too much time "in debate and navel-gazing".

"We must remember the absolutely central role of science and innovation in the progress of society and in creating wealth ... We should make use of the precautionary principle, but we should do so in a judicious way and recognise the dangers of standing still," he told the audience.

He said that if the UK was hampered in new areas of research while the rest of the world went ahead it would "create an awful lot bigger problem of society to deal with".

Mr Pearson acknowledged that there were "real dangers" if certain areas of research were not allowed and went elsewhere but said that this needed to be decided consensually. "We can't have it both ways," he said, of the desire for both genuine debate and unfettered science.

Roland Jackson, chief executive for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, welcomed Mr Pearson's comments. "The public's views are based on a deeper set of values that may or may not be shared by scientists," he told The Times Higher .

The new vision will update the old one of a society that is "confident about the development, regulation and use of science" with "a well- qualified science workforce that is representative of the society it serves".

Comments on the new vision close on December 24. A full consultation is to be published in March 2008.

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