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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, the committee was aware of the rising tide of public mistrust of "official" science and its high profile controversies--BSE, GM foods, cloning. The committee had just studied Management of Nuclear Waste in which we found that the nuclear industry and the Government

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had lost the confidence of the public in their commitment to burial of nuclear waste in a deep repository. Yet, overwhelmingly, that was the preferred choice of knowledgeable scientists world-wide. We must never forget that that waste is there and has to be dealt with; it will not just go away. Therefore, a major section of our nuclear waste report was devoted to the issue of public acceptability, which we felt would take 20 years of step-by-step consultation.

Evidence convinced us that there is a "crisis of trust" on many fronts where science is advancing at an accelerating pace, far ahead of public awareness, let alone assent. Yes, the public are aware of the benefits of technology and often take them for granted in the contribution that they make to the quality of life; but, as several noble Lords have said, they are at the same time fearful of some of the new developments, and that can lead to active hostility. I must emphasise, as your Lordships might expect, that science includes engineering and technology.

The British public are very varied: gender, age, politics and lifestyle all make a difference to people's values. Science is not alone in facing public scepticism; all authority is questioned and many issues seem out of focus to the general public. As several noble Lords said, media hype then confuses people further. Confusion can arise between attitudes to the science itself and attitudes to the ethics, values and morals that lie behind the science and its applications.

We looked at the present state of the activities and institutions aimed at improving the public understanding of science. We are in no doubt that much good work is being done. The science White Paper, Realising our Potential, published in 1993, stated:

    "The understanding and application of science are fundamental to the fortunes of modern nations ... Science and engineering also make a most important contribution to improved public services and the quality of life",

as I emphasised earlier.

The activities of COPUS, set up by the Royal Society, Royal Institution and British Association, have expanded since 1985. We identified a considerable improvement in the attitude of many scientists towards "outreach" activities, which have grown in type and number--Science Week by the British Association, lectures, prizes, grants and much more. In fact, the British Association and the Royal Institution are exploring many new ways of bringing science to the public interest.

We concluded that outreach needs a different approach--not so much the public understanding of science as science understanding the public. Communication must become more two way, which these two organisations and the Royal Society are definitely trying to do, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin said. We believe that we need to get away from a "top down" one-way process of getting people to understand better what scientists and engineers are up to, towards a real dialogue with the public.

Our witnesses told us that today's public expect,

    "not only to know what is going on, but to be consulted".

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Science and its applications are,

    "moving out of the laboratory and into the community".

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution drew our attention to local consultation carried out by Hampshire County Council over an "energy from waste" incinerator, which, in the first instance, had met a great deal of local opposition. The county council initially dismissed this as "NIMBYism" but discovered it was a more complex matter. It initiated an elaborate two-year consultation and stated right from the start that doing nothing was not an option. The problem would not go away and so it was not a question of merely accepting or rejecting an outcome. The elaborate consultation led to an acceptable planning decision. The key to its success was that the county council,

    "identified accurately the issues of concern to the public".

This kind of patient dialogue must also inform government policy-making. We said:

    "We commend the Government and the scientific community for the limited experimental efforts which have already been made. We recommend however 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".

But we do sound one very important caveat: giving the public a right to be informed and consulted does not give it a veto on scientific inquiry. This is how we put it:

    "Some of the greatest advances of science have been made in the face of public hostility ... Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin provide the two most outstanding examples from the past. To prohibit science from progressing without express public support in advance would be retrograde and repressive".

This poses a particular challenge for the research councils. We say clearly:

    "In our view, it would be wholly inappropriate for lay members of the public to judge the scientific merit of particular grant proposals. This must continue to be done by peer review. To expect lay people to participate in this particular aspect of the work of the Research Councils would, in the case of most grant proposals, be asking the impossible; and it would risk imposing a general chill on scientific freedom in the way which we deprecate".

We commend the research councils, however, for their efforts to involve stakeholders and the public in the wider task of setting the priorities against which particular grants are made.

Then we moved to the volume of evidence about the media and from the media, referred to by a number of noble Lords. Many in science blame the media for their woes. On the other hand, journalists complain that it is difficult to get information quickly from UK scientists and engineers. Someone said it was quicker to telephone the US.

There is a contrast between specialist science editors and journalists, and news desks, political desks and current affairs broadcasting. On the whole, the former are responsible and do their best to get their stories right. But they are journalists, and stories and space are vital to them and are competed for. Most of the perceived problems with the press arise when science

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stories are handled by others--for example, by sub-editors and those on news desks, who will go for the hyped-up headline to gain attention. I refer to the sub-editor who does not understand the story and alters it to give it "spin", and to the editor whose paper, particularly if it is a tabloid, goes into campaigning mode, and where the science is subordinated to the campaign. We went into this matter in some depth in regard to the furore over GM foods when the reporting moved right out of the science editors' hands. Despite that, our conclusion is that in a democratic society where, mercifully, we have a free press, scientists must learn to take the rough with the smooth like everyone else.

While we were deliberating, the Royal Society published two valuable sets of proposals. The first was Guidelines for editors, emphasising the need for accuracy; credibility; balance; uncertainty; legitimacy; advice; and responsibility. The second was the society's Guidance to scientists, also mentioned in our report. It consists of 14 concise paragraphs of advice for scientists dealing with the media, which seemed to us to be very sensible. I look forward, together with all other Members of this House, to receiving a copy of the new guidelines mentioned by my noble friend Lord Jenkin.

Of course, scientists need training in handling the media. There are also bodies which can help to mediate--and we specially commend the British Association's AlphaGalileo Internet site, providing resources for journalists interested in research around Europe. But our message is clear. In a free society with a free press, scientists cannot look for special protection from the media. Scientists must become better at handling the media.

Perhaps I may refer at this point to a subject that is especially important to me. Not surprisingly, it is the importance of special initiatives for women. In the past, as we state in the report, girls and women were often excluded from good science teaching, which can spread over to present primary school teachers, the majority of whom are women. They can lack confidence to put the subject over in an exciting way and would benefit from good in-service training.

We visited Copenhagen, and heard the same story there. We met members of the Council for Science and Technology whose excellent reports have since been published and emphasised the vital need for good in-service training of teachers and greater resources for science and technology if those subjects are to be put over well in schools and if we are to set knowledgeable attitudes among young people for their adult lives. We also emphasised the need for practical experiments in schools. The committee has recently met again with the Council for Science and Technology. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, mentioned, I hope that we shall be reporting with further advice for action soon, for girls as well as boys.

Perhaps I may quote a section from the report. It states, at paragraph 3.53:

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    "Improving women's understanding will have a disproportionate effect in putting the subject across to the general public. Women may already share public anxieties in areas such as the environment and family life more deeply than men; and they are usually the purchasers of food and household equipment, so will give a clearer picture than men of what that market will stand...It is therefore worthwhile persevering in the general field of adult education to interest and inform women in science and technology".

I particularly welcome the COPUS work with the Women's Institute which has spread across the country in a most exciting way.

Mothers and grandmothers--and I am a granny six times!--need to be knowledgeable about using domestic apparatus safely, and also to be confident in encouraging their daughters and granddaughters to embrace the benefits of technology and to enter careers in those subjects. They are scarce skills leading to good careers.

I must declare an interest as a patron of the WISE campaign, whose aim is to encourage women into science and engineering. The Government, in their response to the report, are encouraging in their welcome for those initiatives and others. However, if they are to develop successfully they, too, need financial resources both from government and from industry, which is very difficult to achieve these days.

It is clear from the report that we need to alter radically the dialogue between scientists and engineers and the public. We need to heed people's values and ethics and not allow scientific progress to get too far ahead of the public understanding of the benefits that will result for many people. That will need to be communicated carefully and interestingly to the media--once again involving listening as well as speaking on both sides. However, science must learn to live with a free press and to be subject to the hurly-burly of debate--just as our report must. We hope that the report will make a positive and constructive contribution to that debate.

12.47 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I had the privilege of serving on the committee with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. I am delighted to see the noble Lord back in this House. He is obviously making up for lost time--I see that he is speaking in both of today's debates.

I am especially pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Platt. She made reference to WISE. The House will know that she played an important role in establishing that institution, and it has been very successful thanks to the large degree of energy that she has put into it.

This report is slightly different from the usual run of reports from the Science and Technology Select Committee. It is not really about natural science; it is about a particular branch of social science--relationships. It is about the relationship between science, technology and engineering, on the one hand, and the public on the other.

We originally thought that this study was to be about the "public understanding of science". However, once we understood that we were dealing

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with relationships, we became unhappy with the phrase. We became aware of its rather condescending overtones. Indeed, we realised that this phrase was part of the problem. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, we can no longer assume that if the public know more about how science works they will be more accepting of it.

Therefore, we began to refer to our work as dealing with "science and society", because that more accurately describes a sharing relationship between equals. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, pointed out that the phrase has been picked up by many commentators, writers and reporters and that it is now in fairly common use. On this occasion, your Lordships have coined a phrase that has quickly been taken up.

The noble Baroness, Lady Platt, pointed out that many of us who are interested in science and technology had felt for some time that the relationship between science and society is not as good as it should be. The crisis over BSE, GM foods and increasing complaints about doctors convinced us that this was not just a few cracks appearing; the relationship itself was breaking down, for all the reasons that human relationships break down--distrust, half-truths, evasions and blaming others. The report crystallised those fears and anxieties.

Perhaps those fears and anxieties existed partly because the relationship between science and society was a maturing relationship. It was past the first flush of youth, where society looked at science adoringly and assumed that it would always have the right answer. Science, too, was realising that it could no longer take the unquestioning adoration of the public for granted. It was entering into what I might call a "middle-aged relationship"--one where the partners were becoming more questioning and more demanding. They needed to talk to each other, but they were not sure how. Overhanging all of this was an uneasy feeling about money, with society feeling that perhaps science was not being completely honest and open over where the money was coming from and where it was going to.

Your Lordships' committee thought about how science and society could cope with the realities of this rather more middle-aged relationship. Our main recommendation was that they should just talk to each other more. We laid out ways in which this might be done--for example, by public consultation, conferences and meetings, education, dialogue through the media, on the Internet, through panels, focus groups, science centres, science events and codes of practice. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, told us about the media code of practice.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the response has been nothing short of extraordinary. Most of these avenues have been opened up. There is to be an impressive new centre for science and society

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in Queensway, about which the noble Lord told us. The Royal Institution is setting up a media science centre, so as to provide--

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