4.19 Since in most situations risk and uncertainty
cannot be eliminated, they must be assessed and managed by an
acceptable process (Irwin Q 83). The traditional process relies
on the advice of independent experts. However, as we discussed
in Chapter 2, the public is currently in no mood to place uncritical
trust in experts.
4.20 The concept of independence is also
problematic. When assessing what science says, regard may be had
to where it comes from and who paid for it. The Consumers' Association
told us that this has been accepted in the USA for 30 years,
and is now generally acknowledged in this country
(Q 613; cp May Q 3; R Soc p 43). Evidence from public opinion
surveys, showing the importance of the perceived source or paymaster
of research, was quoted above in Chapter 2. The Science Editor
of the Express put this point of view to us in extreme
terms: "There is no such thing as pure science unadulterated
by money or greed or personality. It is all coloured by something"
4.21 Commercial connexions are most problematic.
20 years ago, most university research was funded by the taxpayer
through the dual support system,
and could reasonably be regarded as "independent". However,
the policy of successive Governments since then has been to promote
links between academic/public-sector research and the private
sector, and has rewarded universities that succeeded in securing
commercial sponsorship for their work. There are very few universities
in the United Kingdom that receive no money from industry. This
makes the majority an easy target for those who wish to claim
that the results of their work are not independent. The Funding
Councils give particular recognition to industry-supported work
which results in open publications after normal peer review.
It is nevertheless true that, in some fields, these policies have
made it hard to find an expert who cannot be said to be in some
way connected with the relevant industry (Irwin Q 59; Attenborough
Q 370; ISIS p 340; Rice/Owen p 384).
4.22 The House of Commons Science and Technology
Committee considers that this line of argument must be resisted.
They have recently said, "We reject any suggestion that scientists'
integrity is automatically compromised by association with industry".
Likewise the National Consumer Council argues that it should not
be assumed automatically that "a scientist is in the pocket
of whoever is paying his wages" (Q 614).
4.23 The Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines
suggest that openness provides a way out. They say,
"Efforts should be made to avoid or document
potential conflicts of interest, so that the impartiality of advice
is not called into question".
4.24 Sir Aaron Klug acknowledges, "Political
realities being what they are, it is probably futile to argue
that a scientist can interact with a commercial company without
becoming an implicit advocate for that company". He suggests
another approach: "If we are not to lose the public services
of commercially aware expert scientists, we will need to proceed
by the route of establishing panels whose expert members, collectively,
represent a balance between the main sets of interests at stake".
4.25 We strongly agree in principle with
the sentiments of our colleagues in the House of Commons. 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. It should be noted that pressure groups
in the environmental and other fields are often presented as sources
of "independent" science; yet their officers and retained
scientists depend for their support on the subscriptions of members
and sympathisers, and so are as liable to be "mandated"
as any industrial scientist.
4.26 Nonetheless, Sir Aaron is right to
point to political realities. It must be admitted that, as we
have argued in the preceding chapters, peer review and declarations
of interest have not averted the present crisis of trust in science-based
public policy. In our view, a radically different approach to
the process of policy-making in areas involving science is called
for. In the next chapter, we examine the options.
37 Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999. Back
COM(97)183, April 1997. Back
The expression "mandated science" is sometimes used
for research whose outcome is effectively dictated by its source. Back
Consisting of the Research Councils and what was then the Universities
Funding Council, now the HEFCs. Back
"Peer review" is the process whereby work submitted
for publication in a learned journal, or for financial support,
is examined by the researcher's scientific peers (i.e. equals)
to see that it is genuinely interesting and not patently flawed. Back
Scientific Advisory System: GM Foods,
HC 286, May 1999, para 51. Back
Royal Society Anniversary Address 1999. Back