A new institution?
5.83 Some of our witnesses consider that
a new institution is needed, as a national focus for engagement
between science and the public. The Wellcome Trust (p 131),
Dr Paul Nurse and Dr John Tooze
(p 373) and the Café Scientifique (p 272)
propose an institution with some or all of the following functions:
- Giving policy-makers and the public rapid and
reliable information on science issues of current concern;
- Anticipating public concern and provoking timely
- Monitoring public opinion on science issues;
- Conducting public dialogue on science issues;
- Representing the public in science policy groups.
It is interesting that such a proposal should be
made independently by witnesses spanning the distance from the
establishment to the "grass roots".
5.84 Although all three perceive a need
for such a body, and all agree that it would need public trust,
they have quite different ideas as to how it might be constituted
in order to secure it. Dr Nurse and Dr Tooze consider that its
funding should be independent of Government and "vested interest
groups"; they suggest grafting it onto (or growing it out
of) the Royal Society. The Wellcome Trust and the Café,
on the other hand, envisage public funding. The Café
would position it as "independent"in particular,
independent of the scientific societies and industry. The Trust
would model it on the National Audit Office and the Danish Board
of Technology, which report to Parliament. Rather than expecting
new money, the Trust suggests that it might be funded with the
£4.5m p.a. currently spent by and through OST on public understanding
of science activities.
5.85 We put these proposals to Sir Tom Blundell,
Chairman of the RCEP. His reaction was "not entirely enthusiastic"
(Q 674), on the ground that, as argued in Setting Environmental
Standards, public dialogue on environmental and other science
issues needs to be specific, and requires a process tailored to
each specific situation. However he considered that there might
be "a role for an overarching body in monitoring and assessing
best practice", and that such a body ought to be "close
to Parliament, because we are talking about public values, public
confidence in decision-making".
5.86 COPUS expressed even less enthusiasm
for yet another organisation entering an already crowded scene.
They consider in particular that any organisation connected closely
with either Government or Parliament is unlikely to command the
necessary public confidence (Q 795).
5.87 We agree that there is no need for
a new institution in an already crowded scene. We have argued
instead that a change in the culture of existing institutions
is called for. We have noted encouraging evidence that in some
cases, e.g. the national science museums and the Research Councils,
such a change is beginning to take place; and we have recommended
that the OST and COPUS should give a lead in the public and private
sectors respectively. Creating a new institution with special
responsibility for public dialogue would run the real risk of
having the opposite effect, of encouraging all existing institutions
to regard public dialogue as somebody else's business.
5.88 In particular we commend POST for resisting
the temptation to replicate the work of the Danish Board of Technology,
in some respects its sister-organisation, in the significantly
different conditions of the United Kingdom. We met the officers
of the Danish Board of Technology in Copenhagen, and we were impressed
by its work, which is described in Appendix 4 and which is evidently
highly valued in Denmark. However the Danish parliamentary and
social contexts are different from those in this country.
5.89 POST has an important role to play,
in filtering for this Parliament the large quantities of information
which are now available about public attitudes to science. We
look to 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 informed. This may have implications
for POST's resources, if at the same time POST is to maintain
its excellent service of technical briefing, which is of great
value to members of both Houses.
47 Scientific Advisory System: GM Foods,
HC 286, para 53.