The approach of this
1.19 Since science's relationship with United
Kingdom society is under strain, and since this is of the greatest
importance to both the scientific community and the nation as
a whole, the rest of this report looks at the roots of the problem
and what can be done about it. We recommend ways to improve the
dialogue between the two sides:
- through "public understanding of science"
activities (Chapter 3),
- by improved communication of uncertainty and
risk (Chapter 4),
- and, most importantly, by changing the culture
of policy-making so that it becomes normal to bring science and
the public into dialogue about new developments at an early stage
1.20 We have been very conscious throughout
our inquiry of the public uproar about GM crops and foods. It
was not however that controversy which primarily prompted this
study. What persuaded us to take a hard look at the relationship
between science and society was our own major study, conducted
in 1998-99, on Management of Nuclear Waste.
Our report on that subject considered public acceptability in
Chapter 5, touching on the following issues:
- The difference between active endorsement, and
more passive acquiescence.
- NIMBYismpeople's capacity to accept something
in general, and yet object when it threatens to touch them directly
("Not In My Back Yard").
- The importance of public trust in institutions.
- The capacity of those in authority to misread
public attitudes and values.
- The complexity of public attitudes and values,
and their capacity to change, particularly when worked upon by
- Factors which heighten public concern about risk:
lack of personal control; difficulty of setting risk against benefit;
special "dread factors"; and unacknowledged or understated
- The difficulties of numerical risk assessment.
- Different ways of exploring public attitudes
and building public trust: stakeholder dialogues, the People's
Panel, consensus conferences, citizens' juries, deliberative polls.
1.21 Our main conclusions in that report
- Any strategy for nuclear waste must have both
national and local acceptance by the public if it is to succeed.
Gaining that acceptance may take 20 years.
- Openness is crucial, though it is not a panacea
and is not without cost.
- The place where public acceptance is given authoritative
expression is Parliament.
This report explores some of the same themes across
the whole range of science and technology.
1.22 In this report we do not take a position
on nuclear waste, GM food, or any other particular issue of current
controversy. The purpose of this report is rather to examine the
processes whereby such positions are taken, and to make
recommendations to improve those processes.
1.23 This inquiry has taken this Committee
further than it usually goes into the realms of social science.
We have been told on all sides, and we believe it to be true,
that "hard science" is paying increasing attention to
insights from social science. The particular issues of this report,
public understanding of and engagement with science, have been
the subject of increasing study by social scientists over the
last 20 years.
1.24 In Chapter 6 we consider the crucial
role of science education in schools, which forms many of the
attitudes to science which people take into adult life. In Chapter
7 we consider the equally crucial role of the media, which are
the main source of information and ideas about science and science-related
issues for most adults.
1.25 The issues examined in this report
are not unique to the United Kingdom. We have therefore visited
two countries which, while every bit as scientifically sophisticated
as ours, offer instructive contrasts in public attitudes and institutional
approaches: the USA, where institutional openness is enshrined
in law and the public is on the whole more enthusiastic about
new technologies; and Denmark, where the public is perhaps even
more sceptical than in the United Kingdom and public consultation
is a highly developed art. Notes of these visits appear in Appendices
3 and 4.
1.26 We have not considered the education
and training of specialist scientists, nor ways to encourage more
young people to follow science careers, except so far as these
issues have a bearing on understanding of science by the wider
public. They are important issues in their own right, but they
are not the subject of this report; they are under detailed consideration
in other forums, and our concern here is with the general public
rather than the cadre of specialists. Study of the dialogue between
individual patients and health professionals has also been excluded,
because it is essentially a private matter, and raises a separate
set of issues.
1.27 We hope that this report will complement
the current work of the House of Commons Science and Technology
Committee on science advice to Government, and that it will feed
into reviews of activities in the area of public understanding
of science by the Office of Science and Technology (OST), COPUS
and the Wellcome Trust. We hope that it will also inform the current
work of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee on
innovations in citizen participation in government.
1.28 This report was prepared by Sub-Committee
II, whose members are listed in Appendix 1, with their declarations
of interest. They received evidence from a wide range of individuals
and organisations, to all of whom we are grateful; they are listed
in Appendix 2. The oral evidence received at 13 public hearings,
and much of the evidence received in writing, is published in
1.29 We record our gratitude to our Specialist
Advisers: John Durant, Assistant Director of the Science Museum
and Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Imperial
College; Brian Wynne, Professor of Science Studies and Research
Director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at
the University of Lancaster; and Nicola Lindsey of Imperial College.
We wish also to express particular gratitude to those who met
some of us in the USA and in Denmark, and to the staff of the
British Embassies in Washington and Copenhagen and the Consulate
General in Boston, and Dr Gary Kass of the Parliamentary Office
of Science and Technology (POST), who gave invaluable help in
setting up those visits.
1.30 In the course of our inquiry, a great
deal has been said and written on the theme of society's engagement
with science. We do not pretend to have taken all of it into account.
We are however much indebted to two landmark speeches, whose settings
encompass the breadth of the issue and on which we draw in the
body of this report.
1.31 First, on 24 June 1999, Professor Gordon
Conway, former Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University and now President
of the US Rockefeller Foundation, met the board of directors of
Monsanto in Washington DC. Speaking as an advocate for the poor
people of the Third World, he challenged the way in which Monsanto
sought to develop and market GM crops. He spoke enthusiastically
about the achievements of the technology, for example in raising
rice yields and quality in poor countries. However, he criticised
in blunt terms Monsanto's policies in the face of public suspicion
and hostility around the world. What he said
had a profound effect on his audience, and an impact on the unfolding
story of GM crop technology. We believe that it contains lessons
with even wider application.
1.32 Second, on 30 November 1999, Sir Aaron
Klug OM, President of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's
academy of science whose Fellows include many of the foremost
scientists at work today, addressed the Society's Anniversary
Meeting. His speech
touched on many of the themes of this report, and put into well-chosen
words many of our own conclusions.
1.33 As our inquiry came to an end, the
OST issued a consultation paper on science and innovation strategy.
One of the proposed areas for action is to "improve public
confidence by creating greater transparency in the regulation
of science"; and one of the questions to which responses
are invited is, "Do you consider that there is sufficient
information available on Government's handling of issues arising
from the application of science and the ways that Government receives
advice and responds to it?" The whole of our inquiry has
been directed at ways to improve public confidence in science
and in Government's handling of it, and we have argued above that
improving public confidence is essential to any strategy for science
and innovation; so this report is our answer to the Government's
question, as well as having, we hope, an influence on a wider
1.34 Throughout this report, recommendations
for action are shown in bold type.