By the Select Committee appointed to consider
Science and Technology.
SCIENCE AND SOCIETY
Introduction (Chapter 1)
1. Society's relationship with science is in a critical
phase. Science today is exciting, and full of opportunities. Yet
public confidence in scientific advice to Government has been
rocked by BSE; and many people are uneasy about the rapid advance
of areas such as biotechnology and IT - even though for everyday
purposes they take science and technology for granted. This crisis
of confidence is of great importance both to British society and
to British science.
Public attitudes and values (Chapter 2)
2. Public interest in science in the United Kingdom
is high. Survey data reveal, however, negative responses to science
associated with Government or industry, and to science whose purpose
is not obviously beneficial. These negative responses are expressed
as lack of trust.
3. We detect several strands within this situation:
- The perceived purpose of science is crucial to
the public response.
- People now question all authority, including
- People place more trust in science which is seen
- There is still a culture of governmental and
institutional secrecy in the United Kingdom, which invites suspicion.
- Some issues currently treated by decision-makers
as scientific issues in fact involve many other factors besides
science. Framing the problem wrongly by excluding moral, social,
ethical and other concerns invites hostility.
- What the public finds acceptable often fails
to correspond with the objective risks as understood by science.
This may relate to the degree to which individuals feel in control
and able to make their own choices.
- Underlying people's attitudes to science
are a variety of values. Bringing these into the debate
and reconciling them are challenges for the policy-maker.
4. Knowledge obtained through scientific investigation
does not in itself have a moral dimension; but the ways in which
it is pursued, and the applications to which it may be put, inevitably
engage with morality. Science is conducted by individuals; as
individuals and as a collection of professions, scientists must
have morality and values, and must be allowed, indeed expected,
to apply them to their work. By declaring the values which underpin
their work, and by engaging with the values and attitudes of the
public, they are far more likely to command public support.
5. The importance of this is not confined to scientists;
it extends to those who make policy on the basis of scientific
opportunities and advice. Policy-makers will find it hard to win
public support on any issue with a science component, unless the
public's attitudes and values are recognised, respected and weighed
along with the scientific and other factors.
Public understanding of science (Chapter
6. There has been a cultural change in the attitude
of most British scientists, in favour of public outreach activities.
Activities to improve the public understanding of science now
receive support from Government and industry.
7. However, the crisis of trust has produced a new
mood for dialogue. In addition to seeking to improve public understanding
of their work, scientists are beginning to understand its impact
on society and on public opinion.
8. Efforts to improve relationships between science
and society take many forms. We have reviewed some of the principal
- COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding
of Science, formed in 1986 by three of the leading organisations
in this field, the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the
British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS);
- The Research Councils and Higher Education Funding
Councils, through which the British Government funds academic
- Science museums and science centres;
- The Internet;
- Special initiatives for women.
9. Much excellent work is being done to raise the
public understanding of science. All these institutions must,
however, respond to the new mood for dialogue. Some are already
||That the Office of Science and Technology (OST) should give favourable consideration to any reasonable bid from COPUS for direct Government support; that COPUS, which has undergone a review, should find room on its new Council for someone from the field of science education in schools; and that the partners in the reformed Council should consider seriously a new name reflecting the new mood for dialogue. (paragraph 3.16)
||That Research Councils and universities should strongly encourage communication training for scientists and, in particular, training in dealing with the media. (paragraph 3.22)
||That the communication training offered to research students should be broadened to include an awareness of the social context of their research and its applications; and that strenuous efforts be made by universities to see that as many students as possible take full advantage of this opportunity. (paragraph 3.23)
||That grant-giving bodies should give researchers every encouragement to share their research with the public, and should support and reward those who do so; and that universities should see this as a shared responsibility. (paragraph 3.26)
||That the Higher Education Funding Councils should reward the work of those who have successfully brought the results of their research to a wider audience. (paragraph 3.32)
||That the OST and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport should set up a similar structure to the Scottish Science Trust to support science centres in England and Wales. (paragraph 3.43)
||That the OST should establish liaison linking the science museums and science centres with the Research Councils and the Foresight team, so that each can help the other to identify and respond to emerging issues in science. (paragraph 3.46)
||That the OST should give appropriate institutions incentives to collaborate to create and maintain reliable and independent "portal" Web sites, providing links to science information Web sites of high quality and open to public access. (paragraph 3.49)
||That the Government should continue to earmark funds for special initiatives to improve women's understanding of science. (paragraph 3.57)
Communicating uncertainty and risk (Chapter
10. When society has problems with science, it is
often over questions of uncertainty and risk. How uncertainty
and risk can be quantified and communicated are questions of great
concern, with no simple answers.
11. In 1997 the Government Chief Scientific Adviser
issued guidelines on Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making.
Their main theme is openness: where scientific advice is uncertain,
this should be admitted from the start. We warmly commend these
guidelines. Suppressing uncertainty is bound to diminish public
trust and respect.
12. It is considered in some quarters that public
discussion of risk would be easier if there were a simple scale
on which any given risk could be placed and compared with others.
We consider that this is not practicable; such a scale could only
13. Scientific input to policy traditionally relies
on "independent experts". However the concept of independence
has become problematic, particularly because of the increasing
commercialisation of research.
14. In our view, scientists must robustly protect
and vindicate their independence. Sponsorships and affiliations
must be openly declared, and must not be assumed to colour the
quality or outcome of the science, provided that the research
output is submitted to peer review and published in the academic
15. Nonetheless, political realities cannot be ignored.
Peer review and declarations of interest have not averted the
present crisis of trust. A radically different approach to the
process of policy-making in areas involving science is called
||That the Government should press for guidelines on scientific advice, along the lines of the OST's guidelines, to be adopted at EU Commission level. (paragraph 4.9)
||That the Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment should look into current research on how risk information is received by the public. (paragraph 4.18)
Engaging the public (Chapter 5)
16. The new mood for dialogue can be expressed in
numerous different activities. We have surveyed the following:
- Consultations at national level
- Consultations at local level
- Deliberative polling
- Standing consultative panels
- Focus groups
- Citizens' juries
- Consensus conferences
- Stakeholder dialogues
- Internet dialogues
- The Government's Foresight programme
17. All these approaches have value. They help the
decision-maker to listen to public values and concerns; and they
give the public some assurance that their views are taken into
account, increasing the chance that decisions will find acceptance.
They are however isolated events, and no substitute for genuine
changes in the cultures and constitutions of key decision-making
18. A meaningful response to the need for more and
better dialogue between the public and science in the United Kingdom
requires us to go beyond event-based initiatives like consensus
conferences or citizens' juries. The United Kingdom must change
existing institutional terms of reference and procedures to open
them up to more substantial influence and effective inputs from
19. To prohibit science from progressing without
express public support in advance would be retrograde and repressive,
and would stifle creative scientific research or drive it overseas.
This is not what our recommendations are intended to achieve.
Nonetheless, in modern democratic conditions, science like any
other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and
values at its peril. Our call for increased and integrated dialogue
with the public is intended to secure science's "licence
to practise", not to restrict it.
||That direct dialogue with the public should move from being an optional add-on to science-based policy-making and to the activities of research organisations and learned institutions, and should become a normal and integral part of the process. (paragraph 5.48)
||That, for OST within Government and for COPUS giving a lead in the scientific community, dialogue with the public in one form or another should become a major strand of their activities. (paragraph 5.52)
||That government departments should collate experience of new techniques of public dialogue, and draw up a code of practice designed both to maximise their effectiveness and preserve their integrity. This exercise should be led by the OST. The code should have the same status as the Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines on scientific advice, and might even form part of them. (paragraph 5.53)
||That any public dialogue should be conducted in good faith, and that its aims and in particular its role in the policy process should be clear from the start. Those organising public dialogue should see to it that single-issue groups do not monopolise proceedings. The organisers of such events should make every effort to encourage the media to cover the event and to report the outcomes. (paragraphs 5.51, 54-55)
||That the Government should give a lead at EU and international level in fostering public dialogue on issues involving science. (paragraphs 5.56, 60)
20. A cultural change in favour of direct, open and
timely public dialogue will have implications for scientific advisory
bodies, for the Research Councils, and for individual scientists.
||That advisory and decision-making bodies in areas involving science should adopt a presumption of openness. This presumption should apply, in particular, to the reasons on which regulatory decisions are made, including all scientific information and advice. The presumption should be overridden only where this can clearly be justified in terms of, for example, genuine commercial confidentiality. (paragraph 5.70)
||That such bodies should open as many of their proceedings as possible to the public. (paragraph 5.71)
||That the new Food Standards Agency should cultivate a culture of direct, open and timely dialogue with the public. (paragraph 5.73)
||That the scientific merit of particular research grant proposals should continue to be assessed by peer review; but that the Research Councils should do more to involve stakeholders and the public in the wider task of setting the priorities against which particular grants are made, and should seek greater publicity for the process. We suggest that they might seek the considered involvement of members of Parliament and local authorities, and of other people active in their communities; and that they might hold occasional open forum meetings in different locations. (paragraph 5.78)
||That the exemption, from the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Bill currently before Parliament, for information intended for publication, be scrutinised to ensure that it is sufficient to protect scientists from being required to reveal the conclusions of unpublished research in advance of peer review. (paragraph 5.81)
||That, when the public interest requires that the public should receive, through the press, an early indication of the nature of a line of research, in suitably guarded terms, the researchers involved should receive help from their university press office or learned society. (paragraph 5.82)
21. It has been put to us that a new institution
is needed, to monitor public opinion on scientific issues, and
to provoke and conduct public dialogue. In our view there is no
need for a new institution in an already crowded scene (paragraph 5.87).
However, we look to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
(POST) to maintain a watching brief on the development of public
consultation and dialogue on science-related issues, and to keep
members of both Houses of Parliament informed.
Science education in schools (Chapter
22. Public attitudes to science owe so much to the
teaching of science in school that we cannot ignore it, though
it has not been the focus of our attention.
23. We greatly admire the work of many science teachers.
The foundations of an interest in science are laid at primary
school. Yet most primary teachers have few science qualifications,
and are therefore likely to lack confidence in teaching science.
We therefore warmly commend the Government's Council for Science
and Technology for their current work on in-service support for
teachers of science in primary schools and the early years of
24. Science in schools must maintain its traditional
and vital focus on preparing the most interested and talented
pupils for science courses at university. At the same time, it
must equip all students for what has been called "scientific
literacy" or "science for citizenship". This has
implications for the curriculum. Dramatic changes to the curriculum
place an enormous burden on teachers; we would therefore recommend
a gradual approach.
||That time for science in primary school should not be squeezed any further by the drive for literacy and numeracy. (paragraph 6.11)
||That those involved in developing science teaching materials should find acceptable forms of live demonstration, in the face of increasing cost and health-and-safety regulation. (paragraph 6.14)
Science and the media (Chapter
25. Once they leave school, most people get most
of their information about science from TV and the newspapers.
How the media handle science is therefore very important; and
many scientists feel that they do it very badly.
26. We find that in fact science journalism is currently
flourishing in the United Kingdom. There are however problems
with the handling of the science angles of news stories by journalists
who are not specialist scientific correspondents, and with the
distorting effect of headlines.
27. Some people look to the media to put their own
house in order. The Royal Society has recently produced guidelines
for editors, calling for factual accuracy and balance in media
coverage of science; we welcome and commend them.
28. In our view, however, the current high level
of media interest in science-related issues is itself to be welcomed.
While it sometimes makes for public dialogue in terms which are
unsatisfactory to some of the players, this is better than no
dialogue at all. Scientists cannot expect special treatment from
the media; they must take the rough with the smooth.
29. Scientists must therefore learn to work with
the media as they are. We have reviewed a range of ways for the
scientific community to help non-specialists in the media to cover
scientific stories more satisfactorily:
- Media training and written guidance;
- Developing the service provided by academic press
- COPUS's media fellowships;
- The BAAS's new AlphaGalileo Web site.
30. We commend all these approaches. More broadly,
the culture of United Kingdom science needs a sea-change, in favour
of open and positive communication with the media. This will require
training and resources; above all it will require leadership,
which the members of the COPUS institutions are well placed to
provide. It will inevitably involve occasional embarrassment or
frustration. But, if it succeeds, it will pay for itself many
times over in renewed public trust.
||That the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) should adopt and promulgate the Royal Society's new guidelines for editors. In doing so, the PCC should make it clear that they are aimed not just at specialist science correspondents, but at all journalists who find themselves dealing with science, including those on the news desk. (paragraph 7.31)
||That the Government should do whatever they can to ensure that EU support is forthcoming for AlphaGalileo, the new internet-based science resource for journalists. (paragraph 7.45)