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Public relations disaster for UK science:
Will it end?
12 March 2002 GMT
by Bella Starling, BioMedNet News
Relations between scientists and the UK public have gone from bad to
worse in the last year. Who's to blame? What can be done? A public forum
on the matter began acrimoniously, but ended in some consensus.
BSE. Foot and mouth disease. Anthrax in the US. Vaccine hazards. GM
foods. Should the British public have any good reason to trust scientists
this year? Or is it politicians they should mistrust? Is there any way to
increase public trust of science?
UK chief scientific advisor David King, who says he is "in the business
of recovering public confidence in science and policy-makers," thinks
there is. Especially in the worrisome climate after September 11, he
said, "science can provide a route forward."
The UK government is now beginning a major review of the impact of
science on all political departments, he announced last week, at the
first National Forum for Science, which took place at the Royal Society
in London. Scientists and politicians have also begun working together to
develop contingency plans to deal with bioterrorism, he revealed.
But will this bring about any meaningful change in the way the UK and its
people grapple with anxieties about science and public policy? At the
forum, environmentalists confronted politicians, who cast blame on
scientists, who criticized actions of the government (as did members of
the general public) whose representatives pointed a finger at the media.
Curiously, the entire event itself was a demonstration of the "very
Anglo-Saxon behavior" that Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends
of the Earth, observes whenever the UK confronts an issue involving
science. "One proposition is met by an opposing proposition, leading to a
fight and ignoring the public," Secrett elaborated. "This leads to bad
decision-making, as opposing parties are pushed to extremes."
A more equal and meaningful public engagement in science issues will not
happen without a culture change, he concluded. Not surprisingly, no such
changes were evident by the end of the forum. But some good suggestions
The National Forum represented one of the first opportunities for
policy-makers, scientists, the media and the public to interact, in the
current climate of public mistrust. It took place in the context of a
survey completed earlier this month by Market and Opinion Research
International, funded by the Kohn foundation, which showed that more than
half of the British public believes the funding of science is too
commercialized, and would like more influence over funding priorities.
The Royal Society forum was the culmination of four regional meetings,
held over the previous year to understand the decline in public
confidence of science and to define ways to improve it. Delegates from
all walks of life - special interest groups, scientists, the general
public - identified four general themes in public anxiety about science
which Peter Woodward, director of Quest Associates which facilitated the
meetings, presented at the forum:
In the wake of BSE, he said, people feel that applied science is
uncontrolled and guided by vested interests. Many people perceive
inadequate regulation of 'new frontier' science, and feel powerless to
influence science on ethical grounds. In general, the public wants more
transparency about scientific information. People sense that information
is limited to power groups such as scientists, corporate conglomerates
and government, none of which they can trust. Sources of funding are
never easy to ascertain. The chief source of public information - the
media - have a confused role. Are they media hype merchants, or merely
servants of the interests of scientists? There are shortfalls in science
education. Not only do people misunderstand issues such as risk and the
scientific process, but science education needs to change in order to
attract future researchers.
It's easy to blame politicians for the current situation, said the head
of the UK Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs,
Margaret Beckett, adding that scientists and politicians "don't
understand each other."
"They despise each other," responded MP Ian Gibson, who is chair of the
Science and Technology Science Committee.
"Politicians do understand science and learn to communicate [it]," he
insisted. "We do get involved and make a real difference, and lots of
good things are happening."
But the chief scientist for Greenpeace, Douglas Parr, retorted that
politicians often use science as a "cover-up for political decisions."
"Politicians patronize us, but we are not fools!" exclaimed a member of
the general public, a woman named Yvonne Eckersley, after the first
question from the floor raised the controversial issue of the safety of
the single measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
"Politicians need to explain scientific controversy, not shelter behind
other people," responded Paul Nurse, the 2001 Nobel Prize laureate who
chairs the Royal Society's Science in Society initiative. The government
could have handled the recent controversy over the safety of the single
MMR vaccine much more effectively, he said, if it had provided "real
information and real data" behind its decisions.
Essayist Fay Weldon agreed. Although she lauded scientists as "rational
and well-intentioned, with amazing achievements," she said that during
the recent MMR controversy "statistics were not given out" and "the
public was not given sufficient respect and was treated as dangerous and
"Are the public really demanding certainties?" asked Greenpeace's Parr,
and then he answered himself: "People are used to handling uncertainties,
but perhaps not unknowns." The solution, he argued vehemently, is
"openness" - a term that arose again and again during the debate.
"We were promised more openness," cried a frustrated member of the Labour
Party, Ann Fitzgerald.
"Openness is critical for good decision-making," agreed Friends of the
Earth's Secrett. "Transparency doesn't occur."
Perhaps it's not the government, but scientists, who are refusing to be
open about the facts. "If scientists are seen to be open," said Beckett,
"they may foster more responsibility."
The media, on the other hand, could be blamed perhaps for being too
"open." People have the perception that the government is not giving them
the full picture, Beckett carried on, but she placed the blame for recent
science controversies fully at the door of the media. "It is not the job
of the media to raise scares," she said, but to encourage "reasonable
In the case of the foot and mouth epidemic, King said, the media had a
negative effect because it portrayed debate as division. But how can the
public decide between "mavericks and great opinionated scientists," asked
Philip Campbell, who is an editor at Nature. Secrett suggested that the
media should "listen" to the mavericks, but not accord them the same
weight as established scientific opinion.
We do not want consensus on all matters scientific, concluded Nurse (who
had defined science, in his introduction to the forum, as "tentative
knowledge.") The public should have the tools at their disposal to make
informed judgments, he urged, and thus be able to contribute to the
democratic process of science.
The UK's first public science forum did not resolve any issues, but it
did draw up what one participant called a "wish list" toward creating
such tools. To ensure better freedom of information about science,
participants suggested that organizations such as the Royal Society
should provide, and make the public aware of, a national database of
websites concerned with scientific discoveries. Scientists ought to be
trained about how to interact with the public, and citizen juries could
be set up to help public opinion have greater influence on the government
regarding scientific issues of the day.
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