Fwd: Public relations disaster for UK science

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Date: Mon Mar 18 2002 - 12:54:37 GMT

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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
    did emerge.

    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.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
    see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit

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