Lord Winston proposed in last week's THES that scientists should not be too close to the government and that the public "should... have a major input into how scientific knowledge is generated and should decide what and how technology is used". Thankfully, last month's House of Lords debate on science and politics showed that the consensus of Lord Winston's peers is far more constructive in approach. In essence, politicians should make the decisions but science must inform policy. Policy must be underpinned by science to deliver optimal outcomes.
Furthermore, in arguing that mistrust in science has reached "crisis" proportions, Lord Winston misrepresented an important challenge for the government and the communication of science. The notion that the "public" has lost trust in science and scientists simply doesn't reflect the true situation.
First, the public is not a homogeneous group with one view. Rather, there are several publics with various values, ideas and allegiances. Second, science and technology are something that people don't often think about, even though our modern world has been built on continued scientific innovation and progress. Science cannot provide absolute certainties, but it is the best mechanism we have to provide an objective calculation of risks and benefits. And we need to take risks to make progress.
Isolated controversies such as those over the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, BSE and genetically modified crops have been a reflection of failures by the government in handling the scientific issues and communicating the risks and benefits involved, failures that have been fuelled and inflated by sensationalist reporting.
Another big factor has been that some pressure groups advocating a strict precautionary approach to new applications of science have succeeded in lobbying the government and have captured the headlines with scaremongering arguments. To justify their views, they have continuously challenged the science, and, in many instances, the campaigns have become more important than the truth. Scientists and the institutions that support them, which aim to put the facts to the public at large and to the government in particular, have few resources and cannot compete with headline-grabbing tactics.
Instead of fuelling the controversies and exacerbating the problem, we should learn from the bad experiences and try to avoid past mistakes.
Rather than scientists disassociating themselves from the government, as Lord Winston suggests, they should work even closer with the government, in a transparent way, to improve politicians' understanding of risk assessment, and they should help politicians to communicate that understanding to their constituents. Everyone has a right to engage in debate should they wish to, but specialist knowledge is needed for specialised decisions, thus scientists must inform policy-makers and politicians about sound science. We rely on experts for all sorts of things in our everyday lives, and it would be foolish for politicians not to do the same when making decisions on science-related policy.
Scientists should continue to set their own agenda by explaining the world to us independently and dispassionately, by making technological advances and by providing scientific input to the policy-making process.
Politicians are elected to lead and govern, to represent the populace, and they must be prepared to do this without bowing to the demands of the sensationalist media and unrepresentative pressure groups.
And only politicians should make policy decisions. That is the basic premise for a democratic society. Trust will be gained, or regained, if these decisions are well informed and based on sound scientific facts.
Ultimately, the public can make its choices through the ballot box.
The Scientific Alliance