Science, People & Politics, issue one, volume i, VolumeI, September-October, 2005

Scientists, society and politics

by Helen Gavaghan

Some assertions by scientists are fatuous. The acknowledgement slipped from the lips of IVF expert, Robert Winston, during his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Dublin this week. True: as for the rest of us. It was one of a number of phrases he deployed to support an argument that in essence was saying scientists are not gods, that science belongs to the people not to scientists and that though scientists may know the detail they are mere custodians of the knowledge those details represent. In a world where science shapes most of our living and dying the point, obvious as it is, is non trivial.

What Winston did not address and what few who make similar arguments ever do have an answer for is how people without a training in science are meant to hold the custodians of the detail, acquired with public funds, accountable for the knowledge of which they are custodians. As he said, "People do not feel to have much ownership of or control over controversial science."

For someone who considers that science is owned by society, it is odd then that he did not assign a higher profile to politicians and politics in his speech. It is after all a method embedded in our society: a concerned member of the public takes his or her worries to their local MP's surgery. Perhaps it is because such an approach does not work if the public is not aware it needs to be concerned, because the detail - where the devil always lives - is as incomprehensible as a foreign language.

By the time a scientific controversy has reached the stage of public outrage the horse has usually bolted, and the public is not speaking to scientists, save perhaps in the case of animal research where the scientist is getting hurt or threatened, but rather to the politicians. In democratic westernised societies it has the luxury of doing so in the language of petitions and demonstrations.

As in the case of GM crops or nuclear energy the scientist can well nigh disappear from what becomes a polarised debate. So how can scientists and public speak with one another and with politicians before the horses bolt? And how can the public equip itself for debate at a level above that which the next president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, calls Daily Mail sloganising.

Though related these are two very different questions. Take the first: is the cell biologist any better equipped to comment on chemical weapons than, say, the nanotechnologist or the Eastenders' script writer? Is the public that sector of society passionately opposed to animal research or the majority which, in Winston's view, accepts animal research because it understands that such work is needed for medicine that mitigates some of the worst aspects of human disease (and anyway, he says, most people wear leather shoes)? How does the politician, the elected representative of the people, fit into the picture?

For the sake of argument let us call politicians and scientists, even when they are commenting on their own work, members of the public and put them all on a par equal with any other member of the public. The shared strength then is one common to human beings in general, the ability to ask the questions what is it, how does it work and why are you doing this? Even if they are talking about their own work, when they may be blinkered by novelty or wholesome enthusiasm, scientists are not necessarily better equipped than a lawyer, train driver or house husband to ask the truly critical questions, what else might happen as a result of this research?

Winston's prescription is that just as medical students must now take compulsory courses in ethics, so should undergraduates on science courses. Fair enough, but scientist then run the danger of being seen as gods of ethics as well as custodians of scientific knowledge. And important as ethics are that is not where the disempowerment of the public lies. Rather the disempowerment lies in the lack of knowledge of science that allows close questioning of research and how it might work in damaging ways with other research. To this problem there may be no answer. But somehow the answer needs to include politics and some alliance among scientists, politicians and public. What seemed to be an almost casual dismissal by Winston of politicians from science and its relationship with the public is unacceptable.

This is the first piece I wrote as part of the magazine Science, People & Politics, a title I founded in September, 2005. I have changed none of the text in the title since first publication, but I have altered layout by varying the html code. The title has built as a triennial series and is now quarterly. HG 20.10.11. Dateline added 25th April, 2013.


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