Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


23 FEBRUARY 2000

  By the Select Committee appointed to consider Science and Technology.




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 scientific authority.
  • People place more trust in science which is seen as "independent".
  • 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 3)

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 influences:

  • 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 research;
  • 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 doing so.

 (a) 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)
 (b) That Research Councils and universities should strongly encourage communication training for scientists and, in particular, training in dealing with the media. (paragraph 3.22)
 (c) 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)
 (d) 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)
 (e) 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)
 (f) 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)
 (g) 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)
 (h) 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)
 (i) 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 4)

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 be misleading.

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 literature.

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 for.

 (j) 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)
 (k) 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 institutions.

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 diverse groups.

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.

 (l) 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)
 (m) 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)
 (n) 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)
 (o) 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)
 (p) 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.

 (q) 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)
 (r) That such bodies should open as many of their proceedings as possible to the public. (paragraph 5.71)
 (s) That the new Food Standards Agency should cultivate a culture of direct, open and timely dialogue with the public. (paragraph 5.73)
 (t) 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)
 (u) 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)
 (v) 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 6)

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 secondary schools.

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.

 (w) That time for science in primary school should not be squeezed any further by the drive for literacy and numeracy. (paragraph 6.11)
 (x) 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 7)

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 officers;
  • 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.

 (y) 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)
 (z) 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)

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