|Science and Society|
The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Select Committee’s request for comments to its inquiry on Science and Society. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with many years experience of science and the promotion of the public understanding of science.
This is an important subject affecting not just the future of science per se, but also of society. Scientific advances are now so rapid and sophisticated that there is a danger that they will be moving so far ahead of society's understanding that scientists and technologists will be viewed as part of a powerful and dangerous power structure that needs to be curbed. In this situation those individuals in the media who have the responsibility of translating new developments for society's appraisal have an almost impossible task given the demands of the public (and editors) for an eye-catching story. All too often veracity is compromised in the process, which perhaps is not surprising given the paucity of scientific background of most commentators. In addition, the scientific community has a responsibility to communicate discoveries to society more effectively. It is therefore evident that much greater effort should be made to further public understanding of science (PUS) through emphasis on training science correspondents and liaison officers, resourcing PUS projects and through greater use of public consultation exercises and "science centres" where information and speakers can be made available for community meetings on areas of concern.
The specific areas of consideration are addressed below:
Q1: What is known about the attitudes in UK society towards developments in science? What is known about the levels of trust in scientists? Are some groups of scientists trusted more than others, and if so, why?
Debate about the attitudes towards development in science have a long history in Britain going back for example in the 19th Century to T H Huxley and the foundation of the British Association. The prevailing attitude of UK society towards developments in science seems to be one of suspicion.
A 1998 MORI survey of business and the environment questioned how much confidence the general public had in what different types of scientist would say about environmental issues. The poll showed that scientists working for environmental groups were considered the most trustworthy, followed by those from Government and, last of all, those from industry. Clearly, the public suspectsa strong political bias in Government scientific information, but perceives environmental groups as more independent. One problem with scientific results is that they are often based on probability, rather than certainty, and the science of statistics is poorly understood by the public and often suspected of distorting the truth. The tabloid press tends to reinforce this to a readership who prefer to see issues as cut and dried.
Among the scientific disciplines, astronomy and medical science are probably trusted more than genetics, for example, especially with the media attention that genetic engineering is attracting. There is, however, a general distrust of any science which appears to threaten one’s point of view, or livelihood. This applies to the perception of fisheries science by fishermen, and conservation science by those whose priorities are profit, industrial development and the accompanying prospects for employment. In general, it is more difficult to provide simple and convincing ecological evidence than it is to provide convincing chemical analyses of, for example, lead in drinking water, levels of atmospheric pollution or loss of ozone layer.
Q2: Do the prevailing attitudes to science in the UK limit exploitation of opportunities (e.g. in employment, recreation and personal health) arising from new developments?
There is a risk that anti-science attitudes propagated in the media and elsewhere will limit the range of options available for the commercial exploitation of opportunities in some science-based areas. Evidence is hard to obtain but the public has a long memory when it comes to past technological failures. Following the events at Three Mile Island, Harrisburg, Penn. and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the industrialised world has virtually shunned future investment in nuclear energy. Similarly, the problems with administering Di Ethyl Stilboestrol to chickens has had a long term negative effect on the public attitude to ‘hormones’ in the food chain. France, however, is a notable example of more pro-science and-technology public attitudes. France now produces more than 90% of its primary electricity from nuclear sources and the French public accepts this
An educated and informed electorate will respond to science-based policy decisions within the national political arena provided that Government and the industry concerned are prepared to adopt an ‘open information’ approach. In Britain the proposed Freedom of Information Bill will address this issue in part. Public caution is understandable and desirable but present attitudes to scientific advances and their commercial exploitation are rarely based on rational appraisal and often exhibit a failure in popular understanding of risk.
Q3: What are the main factors that influence attitudes to science and scientists? Are projects relating to public attitudes towards science (e.g. from the Government or learned societies) directed in the most effective areas? Are there identifiable groups which could benefit especially from targeted attention?
The main influence on attitudes is the media and, to a lesser extent, education. Most people will expect to retain very little contact with their former centres of education whether schools, colleges or universities. This applies as much to those who have received a formal scientific education as to those who did not. Unfortunately, many of those who decide not to pursue scientific subjects at school never understood what science is about although modern existence relies heavily on the uses and applications of scientific principles. The capacity to participate in democratic choices about the direction of science and technology is thereby diminished. This is not a healthy feature of our presentsociety.
The movement to establish ‘science centres’ in major cities to encourage people to explore the nature of science, and to identify public issues associated with new science and technology, must be supported. The approach adopted in projects such as ‘Dynamic Earth’ in Edinburgh and the ‘Earth Centre’ in Doncaster must be used more widely. The excitement and entertainment of experimental learning in such centres will provide the stimulus for many young people to consider a scientific career. Framing the scientific material in a form that is suitable for 8-11 year olds is also appropriate for awakening interest amongst primary school children before they enter the next phase of their education.
Perhaps most important of all, the essential meaning and understanding of "risk" needs a special and concerted programme of "social understanding and acceptance". Scientists are prone to be asked whether or not a new product is "safe". This assumes an absolute and sure standard of "safety" which can never be guaranteed. Scientists can demonstrate whether a new product or process is "unsafe" and may be able to quantify the level of risk involved, but no product or process is, or can ever be, "100% safe". More should be done to help the public to put this matter into better context. Another important factor in improving public attitudes to science would be the demystification of science and scientists. Contact with working scientists would be particularly important and all schoolchildren would benefit from the opportunity to see and question people working in research and development.
Q4: Can science information be collated and presented in a popular, accessible and trusted form? What is the scope for improving the presentation of science by scientists? Is the level of debate on science issues in the media satisfactory? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet in providing access to reliable science information?
Science information can be presented in popular and accessible forms. Publications such as New Scientist, and Scientific American, are good examples, as are TV programmes such as Horizon, Equinox, The Planets, ‘On Giant’s Shoulders’, the Raging Planet and wildlife programmes such as Wildlife on One, and the weekly science journal on BBC-R4.
There is scope, however, for improving the presentation of science by scientists. In the media there appears to be a view that professional presenters rather than scientists should head up science programmes. This often distances the scientist from the audience as someone who needs interpretation because he or she is incapable of communicating directly with laymen. Examples of good presentations by scientists when given the opportunity are not rare and presenters such as David Attenborough and Aubrey Manning are excellent examples of how to do it well. There are more scientists who could be proficient given some expert advice plus some experience, and there is a growing realisation amongst scientists of the importance of such work. The decision to allocate aportion of research grants to presenting results to the public is a step in the right direction. Interviews with scientists on programmes such as Horizon do, however, help to prove that scientists are normal people with a dedication to their subject, rather than a race apart.
There is also room for improvement in the area of debate. Objective exploration of the issues does not boost sales of newspapers or TV audience figures as well as a sensational story. Debates are often confrontational, leaving no room for the middle ground where the truth usually lies, and there is little attempt to present reasoned arguments. To help producers in identifying potential programme content, it would be worth considering the formation of a network of public broadcasters throughout the country who could forge links with scientists and engineers in the leading learned societies and professional bodies in order to identify and plan the coverage of new science and technology in an orderly way. This would be of great benefit to the general audience who would be presented with wider choices and a growing capacity to understand the risks and uncertainties involved. Greater emphasis could also be made on training science correspondents and liaison officers for the media and Government, and would be a further employment route for scientifically trained graduates.
The Internet holds the promise of easy access to public information for anyone with the necessary equipment and the interest. Government Departments are already making a lot of material available and thus helping the democratic process. The Internet does, however, suffer from three shortcomings: i) it is not easy for the casual user to assess the reliability of sources; ii) it lacks the personal touch and iii) it is only accessible to a limited proportion of the population. Perhaps, as the medium matures, the picture may change. In this context it will be interesting to watch the progress of the Alpha Galileo project (pioneered by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and now run by the British Association with support from several Research Councils, the UK and French Governments and the EU).
Q5: How important is the presence or absence of public consultation in determining and developing society's attitude to science issues? What can scientists and policy makers learn from consultation exercises? Who is best placed to assess the relative worth of opinions from professional scientists and from wider society?
Wide or general public consultation has a role but is unlikely to determine or develop society's attitude to science issues. ‘Consultation’ on contentious issues is too often dominated by organised pressure groups and plays no role as an educative process or a discussion forum. As a consequence scientists and policy makers are in danger of learning little from such general consultation exercises.
There are various techniques for engaging the informed general public in debates about the future of science and technology. Consensus conferencing is one of these but it has been tried only once in Britain. This involved a scrutiny of certain branches of biotechnology which were on the threshold of commercial exploitation and was supported by the BBSRC who funded a conference in London at the Science Museum. Citizen juries have recently emerged as a powerful tool for identifying community views on both the setting of environmental targets and how they should be achieved, even for very complex issues. This technique has been used to look at community views on community forests in the Borders and on strategies to improve air quality in Edinburgh. Other countries use these approaches regularly – Denmark and the Netherlands are two examples – and link this directly with the political process. In Scotland the Consultative Steering Group for the Scottish Parliament has recommended that these techniques should be pursued in order to widen the base of participation in political decisions. This degree of openness to more imaginative approaches should be welcomed and encouraged. Events involving senior school pupils building on the concept of consensus conferencing by organisations such as the British Association and the Royal Society of Edinburgh represent useful initiatives at developing public awareness of science issues.
Consultations with specialist groups or learned bodies, as in the case of the present exercise, are also useful to policy makers in that they may be expected to give a balanced view from an informed but not partisan community. In assessing the relative worth of opinions from scientists and from wider society, it requires people in power with a sufficient background in science to understand the key issues, while at the same time having the experience of how society, industry and the economy work.
Q6: To what extent should public opinion influence the agenda of publicly-funded science? For example, should the public help to set Research Council priorities? Should public attitudes be allowed to restrict particular methods or directions of scientific inquiry?
In a democratic society, public opinion must in some measure influence public funding of science, and to some extent public influence already has some influence via the elected government, but it would not be helpful if science priorities became a political or social football. However, the burgeoning cost of research programmes, and the publicity that larger projects attract, inevitably means more public scrutiny. Scientist will need to justify their actions in words that are intelligible to the public. We should be wary, however, of pandering to the lowest common denominator by neglecting areas of science which are not easily presented or understood. While there is no way of ensuring that society has the knowledge it needs when it needs it, there is an infallible way of ensuring that it does not; namely, not to support curiosity-driven research.
In terms of Research Council priorities, professional discipline and considerable experience is required in order to exercise judgement on the feasibility or otherwise of research proposals. However, it should be possible for the Research Councils to take soundings on public attitudes to various kinds of research and development activities. These views could then be used as a valuable background to decision-making by the funding authority. In many such cases there are likely to be questions of ethics and values involved in the research and here again orderly attempts should be made by the scientists concerned to engage these questions.
There is, however, a tendency within the scientific community to resist this form of questioning on thegrounds that science only deals with objective facts. The domain of science-based technology has widened to such an extent that many of these questions now intrude on the lives of ordinary people and therefore cannot be treated as an inconvenience to busy scientists and engineers. More systematic procedures are needed to engage these issues. The Society, Religion & Technology project of the Church of Scotland has a track record in this area going back many years. The project’s 5-year study of the ethics of genetic engineering in non-human species has been cited as an example of good practice in handling these difficult and sensitive issues and has recently been awarded the 1999 UK Templeton Prize for its consistent and careful approach. All material generated by the project is published and made widely available on the Internet.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh publications which are of relevance to this subject: The Scientific Advisory System (June 1998); Review of the Framework for Overseeing Developments in Biotechnology (February 1999); The Food Standards Agency: Draft Legislation (March 1999); The Scientific Advisory System for Genetically Modified Foods (March 1999) and National Scenic Areas (April 1999).
For further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands