Why I...believe we must encourage debate between scientists and the public

September 3, 2004

The backlash against genetically modified foods has shown clearly that the public is not content to be unquestioningly enthusiastic about whatever science has to offer.

As scientific advances bring what may seem to many of us increasingly fantastic developments, scientists should be asking themselves what role they can play in preventing a rerun of such a polarised debate.

Do they wish to associate themselves with those who continue to labour under the illusion that if only the uninformed sceptics understood the benefits of the technologies, they would embrace them? Or do they want to take the position (increasingly adopted by scientists) that they have a duty to engage in genuine dialogue with the public about the use we make of new knowledge?

The former view fails to recognise that many contentious issues surrounding scientific advances are, in essence, social and ethical. Whether and under what conditions we should have GM crops, stem-cell research or nuclear power are not merely scientific issues to be resolved by the scientific decision-making process. Achieving a credible, meaningful dialogue with the public will mean involving expertise from outside science - lawyers, ethicists and social scientists, to name a few. But if public debate and policy-making are to have any value, they must also be informed by the best science.

Some scientists, however, have chosen to deliberately misrepresent the concept of public participation in science. Advocating that the public should have a voice in how science and its applications should be governed and managed is not equivalent to having non-scientists vote on what scientists should think or how they should practise.

Taking account of a society's core values as part of policy-making is a challenge. Properly reflecting public views means giving people the chance to carefully weigh up the options surrounding difficult issues.

Many invaluable events are dedicated to communicating science to a wider public, such as the British Association's festival, which opens this weekend. We need a similar commitment to public dialogue from the science community and the Government - a genuine two-way process that focuses on potentially contentious current and future scientific developments.

Despite encouraging signs, much remains to be done. We need more clarity on the public-engagement element of the Government's ten-year investment framework for science and innovation, adequate incentives to involve scientists in the dialogue and better collaboration between the science and social science communities.

For the past four years, the Royal Society's Science in Society programme has been engaging the public and non-scientists in science. It has undertaken dialogue work on "cybertrust", focusing on electronic information security, as well as on genetics and health. The exercises have led to policy recommendations that have been heeded by the Government. To further champion public dialogue, the Royal Society is launching an annual award for excellence in engaging the public with science - to encourage and reward practising scientists or science communicators for work in this area.

Public attitudes will increasingly play a crucial role in realising the potential of technological advances. As Lord May, president of the Royal Society, has pointed out, the debate about what kind of tomorrow we want to create, with the increasingly vast possibilities that science offers us, is not one that can be confined to a science laboratory.

For further details of the Royal Society Kohn Award visit www.royalsoc.ac.uk/awards . The Kohn Foundation provides financial support to the Royal Society's Science in Society programme as well as to scientific and medical research, educational purposes and the arts.

Ralph Kohn, founder of the Kohn Foundation, is a medical scientist and a baritone singer.

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