Time for the simple truth

May 12, 2006

Science must explain its work to public or risk regulation, says Royal Society.

Scientists may find themselves constrained by a new regulatory body if they do not think harder about how they present their research to the public, the Royal Society has warned.

In the wake of a string of high-profile science controversies, from genetically modified foods to cloning, the society spent three years investigating best practice for communicating the results of science to the public.

In a report published this week, the Royal Society concludes that the academic community can no longer afford to ignore problems within the traditional peer review system for assessing research.

It warns that calls have been made for the establishment of an independent body to watch over the release or suppression of controversial findings to the public - an idea that would be greeted with alarm by much of the scientific community.

Sir Patrick Bateson, chair of the working group responsible for the study, told The Times Higher : "The public could insist on such a body. It is their money being spent and they could argue that they have a right to know what is going on. It has happened in other countries."

He added: "Instead, we need to show that we have got the problem under control."

The report, which will be sent to every science department in the country, urges academics to do some serious thinking about the future of the peer review system.

While the society is not advocating that the system should be dropped, it questions whether it might be sensible to remove the "cloak of anonymity" that currently protects academic reviewers.

Professor Bateson said: "There clearly are members of the public who think that secret peer review is open to corruption. I think opening it up could improve credibility."

He added: "Take the case of genetically modified foods. There were anonymous peer reviews, and people who were worried thought there was an establishment conspiracy going on. Knowing who the reviewers were might have helped."

Helen Wallace, deputy director of Genewatch, a group that campaigns against genetic engineering, said: "We would certainly like to see more openness. Decision-making is quite exclusive, and closed to all but scientists."

But the editors of the journals Science and Nature , who sat on the working group, argued that removing the right to anonymity might make it more difficult for them to persuade busy academics to write reviews.

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, agreed. "Most journals don't pay the reviewer and it takes a lot of work. If you have said no to a grant application or a paper, it is almost certain that you will get abusive e-mails or telephone calls," he said.

One solution, suggested by the society, is for journals to approach reviewers once an article has been accepted - if it is likely to have implications for the public - to ask if they will surrender their anonymity.

In such a case the reviewer is less likely to receive any abuse, because the author of the paper has been successful in his or her bid to get the work published.

The report also recommends that scientists whose work might receive public attention must work with journals to produce comprehensible lay summaries of their work.

Professor Bateson said: "It is a skill that most scientists don't have.

They are not producing a simple explanation of what they have done. But it is extremely important."

The Royal Society acknowledges that the vast majority of scientific papers are of interest only to specialists, even if the research has long-term significance to a particular field. But it estimates that a few papers published each week have an immediate relevance to the public.

The report asks scientists to consider whether their work could impact on the eating or lifestyle habits of consumers, the wellbeing of patients, personal security, the state of society in general, the environment or public policy.



* Cloned pigs

On January 2, 2002, PPL Therapeutics announced through a press release and a statement to the London Stock Exchange that five cloned and genetically modified pigs had been born.

The press release claimed that a single copy of a gene had been "knocked out" in the pigs to suppress rejection by the human immune system in the case of organ transplants.

No evidence was provided to support these clAIMS, and the release did not point out that the research had yet to be peer reviewed. The news was on the front page of most national newspapers on January 3. However, none of them mentioned lack of evidence or review.

The next day, Science published a peer-reviewed paper by scientists at US-based Immerge BioTherapeutics.

It described the birth of piglets in 2001 that had also been genetically modified with a key gene "knocked out" to suppress rejection. This paper received almost no UK media coverage.

A spokesperson for PPL said that the company had been compelled to make the media announcement because the development could affect its share price.

* Cloned humans

On December 26, 2002, US-based company Clonaid announced the alleged birth of the world's first human clone.

Clonaid was set up by the Raelian sect, which believes that life on Earth was established by extraterrestrials who arrived by spacecraft some 25,000 years ago and created mankind through cloning.

After a press conference in Miami, British broadcast news bulletins on December led with the story.

The next day the story led the front pages of most newspapers, which included expressions of scepticism from scientists with varying degrees of prominence.

To this day, scientists continue to request evidence to support the clAIMS.

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