Wage war on media fictions, MP urges

November 28, 2003

A gulf between scientists and government is forcing ill-informed policy-makers to rely on media scare stories and pressure groups, the Royal Institution has heard.

Evan Harris, a new member of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, last week told a seminar at the institution that the time had come for academics to "fight back" when politicians made baseless comments about science.

The MP for Oxford, who is a former Liberal Democrat science and education spokesman, said the research community had become too tolerant. He said that many politicians without a science background relied on inaccurate media stories for information.

Dr Harris told The THES : "Politicians should not be able to say things that are wrong without being attacked."

He told the meeting that politicians were frequently manipulated by non-governmental organisations on matters of scientific importance. Other speakers argued that scientists did not have sufficient inroads into government to make their views known.

Sir John Lawton, the chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, said that when he was chair of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds lobby group in the late 1990s, government ministers had initiated meetings with him.

But, he said, no ministers had consulted him since he had taken up his Nerc post, despite the fact that he was one of the most senior authorities on environmental science.

Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield, who chaired the seminar, said there was a definite gulf between scientists and politicians.

She told The THES : "If you are a scientist and you have a bright idea, who would you talk to in government? It's not clear."

She will propose a debate in the House of Lords on December 8 on the need to improve communication.

But Labour MP Brian Iddon, another member of the science and technology committee, said there were already numerous schemes to link scientists with MPs.

"If we had any more initiatives, I think members would complain about it costing them too much time," he said.

Concerns were also raised about the distance between scientists and the public. Dr Harris argued that initiatives to make science more transparent were not sufficient to counter antiscience feeling among the general public.

The science community needed to focus on issuing immediate rebuttals of inaccurate science stories. He said: "It is a matter of crisis that people trust their astrologer more than someone described as an independent scientist."

Dr Harris added that politicians should not always rely on public opinion when formulating science policy. He said the government should be forced to stop using opinion polls and focus groups to inform its decisions.

Baroness Greenfield agreed that there was a problem with trust. "I think it is fear rather than hostility. People fear they have no control over what is happening."

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