Science is for innovation, but what is the public for?

The UK government is worried. It says science underpins the economy, but the big issue is public opinion, reports Robert Walgate.

Jul 31, 2000
Robert Walgate(

LONDON, 31 July (Science Analysed) The first UK White Paper (government statement) on science for seven years, published last week, is very clear about the key issue in science — but a good deal less clear on what to do about it. And the issue is not money. It's public disquiet. And until the inquiry into past governments' handling of information on BSE, chaired by Lord Phillips, reports in the autumn, the Government approach to massaging public opinion on science seems likely to remain ill-defined.

But first of all, British scientists can cheer. With a 15% increase in the science budget last year, and a recent commitment to a further 7% a year for the next three years, this government has shown its scientific colours [see BioMed Central article Devil's in the detail of UK science boost]. It is in favour of science — at least, if it leads to innovation. Its commitment, including a £4 million per annum salary top-up fund for attracting and keeping 50 top scientists in Britain, with the support of the Wolfson Foundation, has been broadly welcomed by chiefs of the UK research councils and many others, and may be read in full in the White Paper.

The hard part, the Government fears, is going to be convincing the public that 'Science is good for you'. The White Paper sets out this issue loud and clear: "The Government is committed to learning the lessons from recent controversies over BSE and genetically modified food... We will create a robust and transparent framework to address consumer concerns over safety. When the applications of science are properly regulated and address clear human needs, they win public support. Science is threaded through every aspect of our lives. That is why Britain will succeed as a 21st century nation only if it has a confident relationship with science. And that is what this White Paper aims to make possible."

Stephen Byers, UK Trade & Industry Secretary, in introducing the White Paper last week, summed up the position this way: his Government is "building a dynamic knowledge economy in the UK: investing in scientific excellence, increasing opportunities for innovation, and providing a basis for public trust in science. By putting these building blocks in place we can harness the full potential of science to improve the quality of life for everyone in Britain... But consumers will only buy new products which they trust... People rightly expect proper safeguards against potential public risks and full information on the implications of scientific developments. Proposals in this White Paper will introduce a framework of proper safeguards, information and accountability, providing the public trust which scientific developments must secure in order to benefit society."

The only trouble is that on this matter of safeguards, information and accountability the White Paper is not as far-reaching as many would have liked. The White Paper was drafted in large part by a civil servant who had long and troubled experience with public controversy in the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. She told BioMed Central "If the public has decided against something, it's very difficult to persuade them otherwise." So the horns of public opinion have to be grasped. Unfortunately a six-month delay in the Phillips inquiry on BSE — which is expected to have a great influence on future handling of scientific advice to government — had meant "we couldn't go as far on public acceptability as we'd have liked."

Over at the (independent) BSE Inquiry secretariat a spokeswoman explained that "the complexity of the story, involving 10 years of history and five government departments, with 300 witnesses and 1000 statements" had made a delay in publication — after two years evidence taking — inevitable. But the forthcoming report will "draw attention to the lessons to be learned" about how scientists operate within government, and about the independence of their advice, she said. "There will be whole sections dealing with scientists and what can be expected of them."

Thus the draftees of the White Paper were unable to be too specific about science and the public. But the paper does make a commitment to openness: "The public framework for assessing risks must be open to public scrutiny at every stage. As a society we can no longer, if we ever could, expect people to trust blindly in Government and scientists to get it right. Consumers will feel confident only if risks from new technologies are questioned and challenged in an open and informed way."

"There is perhaps no more critical example of this than the development of new products and medicines from the sequencing of the human genome," the White Paper emphasises. "We must press ahead with that work, but do so in a way that delivers clear benefits to people and which gives priority to people's health and safety."

The White Paper then makes a final summary of its commitments. These are:

• Support for the basic research: this is one of our key priorities for the next three years;

• Strong regulatory control, through the Medicines Control Agency, the Medical Devices Agency and the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee, and others;

• Careful attention to the views of all the stakeholders, through the Human Genetics Commission;

• Constructive partnership with industry. That means a commitment to wide dissemination of basic data, as shown through the successful international collaboration on the Human Genome Project, while providing the conditions for industry to invest and innovate;

• Action to harness the potentially enormous impact and benefits of gene science on future healthcare by developing a strategy for service provision in the National Health Service. This will tackle questions like genetic testing, counselling and the best use of emerging therapies.

But "Public trust is vital to innovation," the White Paper says. "That trust is easily lost and hard to win back. People in Britain generally support science and innovation. However, the recent controversies over BSE and genetically modified foods show that the public are also concerned about risks, particularly when they involve food and health. We must not dismiss these worries, nor get them out of hand. Were a climate of distrust to build up around science, it could drive scientists away from the UK and in the long run impoverish us."

The deeper question, though, which the White Paper emphatically does not address, is the debasement of language in which 'science' these days must always be read to mean 'technology'. Whereas the public might always have trusted a scientist to say honestly whether he or she thought the Moon was made of green cheese, a very different attitude prevails when the scientist is claiming the green cheese he or she — or his or her colleagues — have engineered, and patented, is safe.