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House of Lords

Friday, 16th February 2001.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Science and Society: Select Committee Report

Lord Jenkin of Roding rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science and Society (3rd Report, Session 1999-2000, HL Paper 38).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to see on the list of speakers the name of my noble friend Lord Waldegrave of North Hill. It will be his maiden speech and we very much look forward to hearing from him. He was one of my junior Ministers in my last job in government and I have the highest admiration for him.

It is rare for almost 12 months to elapse between a Select Committee report and a debate on it. I believe that it must be even rarer for a Select Committee report to have been greeted with such enthusiasm, including by the Government, as this one on science and society.

Not only has interest been shown but, as I hope to illustrate, the report has been followed by significant action by some of the leading players in this field. For that measure of our influence, we owe much gratitude to our witnesses and, in particular, to our two specialist advisers, Professor John Durant, who, at the time, was deputy director of the Science Museum, and Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University. Contrary to the view that I heard expressed recently by at least one distinguished scientist, I have been impressed by how much hard science has to gain from listening to the social scientists. They have much wisdom to impart.

The five main messages of our report can be stated briefly, perhaps at the risk of some over-simplification. First, we were confronted with a paradox. Despite a manifest public appetite for popular science, shown in many different ways, and public recognition of the benefits of technology, there was also much convincing evidence of what we called "a crisis of trust", taking the form of widespread scepticism about the pronouncements of scientists. As we said, undoubtedly something is seriously wrong. That is our first message.

The second message to emerge from the evidence is that if our science is not alone in facing public scepticism, it faces a particular challenge because it involves people's values, their attitudes, and their ethical and moral views. I shall quote just one paragraph--paragraph 2.49--from our report:

    "It is a difficult challenge to get this balance right: on the one hand to address the scientific questions seriously, but on the other hand to avoid reducing the whole public issue to one of science. A

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    negative public response to expert assertions on issues involving science may be mistaken as negative to science, when in reality people are responding negatively to the way in which this reduction to a 'scientific issue' alone distorts or excludes other legitimate concerns".

That message is crucial to an understanding of the whole process of science communication.

The third main message is the need to recognise that the top-down, one-way concept embodied in the phrase "the public understanding of science" must now give way to what we call "a new mood of dialogue"--of listening to the public, as well as informing them. That must be a two-way process. One of our American witnesses, in the customary picky way that they have, said that dialogue requires ears as well as voices. Although much excellent work has been done under the rubric of "the public understanding of science", that concept does not match today's more critical questioning.

The noble Lord, Lord Porter of Luddenham, suggested that instead of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, we should now have a council on science and society--a phrase that resonated with many of our witnesses. That proposal has yet to be embraced by COPUS, and I shall say a little more about that body in a few moments.

The fourth main message is very obvious: there needs to be a new culture of openness and transparency, particularly, but not only, on the part of regulators. We argue that there should be a presumption of openness with, as in America, meetings held in public. It is good to know that that is now happening here.

Our fifth main message concerns the media, and I shall say a few more words about that. Many in science blame the media for their woes. Journalists complain that it is often easier to obtain information from American than from British sources. The Select Committee in another place called for special rules to apply to science reporting. However, we did not agree. Our conclusion was clear: scientists must learn to take the rough with the smooth. In a free society, and with a free press, science cannot look for any special protection from the media. During our study, the Royal Society published two sets of guidance--one addressed to the media and the other addressed to scientists. Both seemed to us to be sensible and we commended them to those concerned.

Last year I learned indirectly that the Press Complaints Commission was not altogether happy, either with the proposals of another place or with our own. It was only this Wednesday that I learned to my considerable surprise that an initiative was taken last year by a body of which I had not previously heard called the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. In consultation, so it is said, with the Royal Institution, the Royal Society and several medical bodies, it has drawn up another set of guidelines which this time has been endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission.

I first heard about that on Wednesday when I received a letter from my noble friend Lord Wakeham, chairman of the commission. He wrote to me apologising that he would be unable to take part in this

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debate but informing that he was very "pleased with the outcome"--that is, with the new guidelines. He added:

    "I would be enormously grateful if you would underline my concern that, now that such guidelines exist, it is important for people to use them. Standards of reporting are raised on the back of effective complaints to us--and I would welcome any examples of inaccurate reporting being brought to my attention".

I wonder to how many of your Lordships the existence of the guidelines came as a total surprise. I am told that they were published last September, but I certainly knew nothing about them until my noble friend sent them to me on Wednesday. Since then, I have been trying to find out who is responsible for promulgating and circulating them. The answer, I must inform your Lordships, is that nobody has accepted that responsibility. I discovered yesterday that the British Association for the Advancement of Science--even that important body--did not know that the guidelines existed. The Royal Society does not know whether they are intended to replace the guidelines that we commended in the report, or whether both sets of guidelines are intended to exist side by side.

One hopeful sign is that the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, was one of those named in the new guidelines as having taken part in the consultation process. I hope that the noble Lord will tell the House rather more about the background to that development.

If the Press Complaints Commission has endorsed the new guidelines--they seemed to me to be eminently sensible--science may have won a new ally. Surely, however, it is of the utmost importance that everyone concerned should know about them, that they should be widely circulated and that someone should take charge of them and carry the process forward.

When I talked to the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford yesterday, it told me that it was proposing to establish a series of workshops for scientists and journalists. I expressed the hope that that initiative, which I welcome, would include editors and sub-editors as well as science correspondents.

There is much unfinished work in this context, and I look forward to the Minister's response. I do not know whether the situation is a surprise to him; it was certainly a surprise to me.

The Government's response accepted the five main points--as I said, I have oversimplified the situation--and almost all of our 26 detailed recommendations. It has been even more encouraging to discover how many people and bodies out there are acting on our report. I was recently told by two well-respected commentators:

    "The report has put the final nail in the coffin of the public understanding ... approach to science communication ... it has given increased confidence to those, especially scientists, who believe that a more interactive, consultative approach is the way forward".

Last year, within days of the publication of our report, an article in the journal Research Fortnight stated:

    "The Natural Environment Research Council is to revise its policy on the public understanding of science in the light of last month's report on science and society from the House of Lords science and technology committee".

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The director-general of the research councils told me that the chairmen and chief executives of all of the councils had got together last year for a special consultation to plan how to respond to the report. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about that. Since then, a 4.5 million programme has been announced involving the Economic and Social Research Council for research on science and society. The research, involving a range of disciplines, will be designed to bring about a better understanding of the changing relationships between scientists and those with whom they interact, of the processes of "engaging" the citizen--that phrase echoes our report--and of changes in the governance of science. Those points were all central in our report.

Last November, a new Science and Society Forum was launched in Portcullis House. The central aim of that forum is to identify and evaluate the wide range of current and planned experiments in "public engagement"--that is another phrase used in our report. Action is based on sound evidence of what works.

The British Council told us in its evidence that it was developing what it called a science and society brand. Its director of science, Dr Lloyd Anderson, told me about the various initiatives that it was developing. One initiative involved an Internet conference, in which nearly 500 people from 34 countries took part. He told me about one interesting phenomenon that emerged, which I am sure is mirrored in this country and in others. He said:

    "As the e-conference progressed, it was as if there were two tribes, so removed from each other that they had begun to speak different languages ... One side tended instinctively to see scientists as pathfinders, finding a way for the rest of society to follow. The other talked about science in society and meant it--even if the implication was that the scientists should submit to increased social control. The gulf between the two tribes colours all efforts to forge a democratic science".

We should all take notice of that.

Although such activity is interesting, it is pointless unless it leads to concrete action on the ground. I want to refer to two major practical initiatives by two of the major players. The British Association has a long and distinguished record of working to build the public's appreciation of science. Its national science week is now a popular annual event. It is not surprising that it has been one of the moving spirits behind a proposed new collaborative institution in South Kensington. Together with the Science Museum, the Wellcome Trust and three major foundations, it is working to establish the Queen's Gate centre for science and society next door to the Science Museum. Those organisers said:

    "It will be the venue for public debate, and genuine, two-way dialogue between the public and scientists, on issues in contemporary science".

It goes on to point out that it is a timely response to the recent report of our committee. A few days ago I was told that it may be called the science and society centre.

Then there is the very important Royal Society initiative. Last November, Sir Aaron Klug, the retiring president, delivered his anniversary address, his last as

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president. He gave us a brilliant review of the history of human genome research and discovery which should be compulsory reading for every sixth former in the land. It is eminently readable and designed for laymen.

He went on to make a very important announcement which I should like to read in full:

    "One of the highlights of the year was a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on Science and society".

It captured a theme with which the Royal Society had been concerned for some years, he said, adding,

    "I am delighted to announce that our activities in this area have received a major boost through a most generous gift--1 million over five years--from the Kohn Foundation".

Dr Ralph Kohn is a very noted philanthropist, supporting both the arts and science. Sir Aaron went on:

    "This has enabled us to create a Science in Society Committee, chaired by Sir Paul Nurse, to take forward a range of initiatives aimed at facilitating this vital dialogue".

I was intrigued to see that the first headline in the media release was:

    "Royal Society to spend 1m on listening to the public".

That might be a slight over-simplification but it captures the message of our report.

As recently as last Friday, there was the Wellcome Trust's MORI survey on the role of scientists in public debate. I quote from the press release:

    "Nine in ten scientists believe that the public need to know more about the social and ethical implications of scientific research, according to a new study from ... the Wellcome Trust ... The study found that 69 per cent of the scientists believe that the main responsibility"--

hang on to those words--

    "for engaging the public in debate about the social and ethical impact of scientific research lay with scientists themselves. But they also felt that science-funders, the government and journalists have a role to play".

It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of that piece of research. It is an extremely authoritative survey and, not surprisingly, the Wellcome Trust's director, Mike Dexter, said:

    "This research explodes the stereotype of the secretive and aloof scientist. Scientists are people with families, too, and they clearly want science to move forward in a socially responsible way".

That may be hype but there is a good deal of truth in it and we need to recognise that.

But few scientists have the training to be able effectively either to communicate with the media or with the public. Many believe that the funding authorities should now give incentives and encourage them to spend time on communications. Our inquiry was told that some of the authorities, perhaps a number of the universities, actively discourage researchers from communicating with the public.

I must ask the Minister how the Government are going to respond to that powerful case. We recommended that the funding council should have a separate funding stream to reward such work. In their response, the Government rejected that. The MORI

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survey has now powerfully reinforced the case for some fresh action and, I believe, some earmarked funding.

Before I sit down, I must come back to COPUS. It told us it was carrying out a full review. It has had to address the question of whether there is need for an umbrella body. We were in no doubt that the answer must be "Yes" and I am told that already people are expressing disappointment at some of the failures of communication and unnecessary duplication over recent months. In my view, the sooner that COPUS or its successor can get back to work, the better. I was told the other day that as regards that side of its activities COPUS has been in abeyance. That is a field above all in which there should be co-operation, collaboration, the sharing of experience and the development of best practice. The Wellcome MORI survey confirmed that there is a real hunger for leadership and training on the part of scientists. There needs to be more encouragement by the authorities. Communication with the public needs to be seen not just as an optional add-on but as a legitimate and central part of the professional work of scientists.

In all that, the voice of the reformed COPUS, or whatever it is to be called, must be heard loud and clear. I am told that that is in hand. A full-time staff member is now in place and the new council is being set up and is positioning itself as a one-stop shop for science communication. But all that is taking a very long time. I must ask the Minister whether he can tell the House what his department is doing to encourage progress. Will it now accept the need to fund that activity overtly and directly, as recommended by our committee?

There are many other questions that I could ask but I have spoken for long enough. I look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords in the debate. I believe that ours is a valuable report but we are impatient for results. We look to the Government to give a lead and I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply will indicate that he and they accept that challenge. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science and Society (3rd Report, Session 1999-2000, HL Paper 38).--(Lord Jenkin of Roding.)

11.26 a.m.

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