Taverne attacks AEBC / Robert Winston regrets signing Blair letter
Lord Robert Winston signatory to the Sense about Science letter to Blair calling for more government support for GM crops:
"We must also avoid exaggeration and over-confidence. Ministers want that, and we are too ready to ascribe to it, because funds may chase that exaggeration, but we should be very wary. With all due respect to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in some ways I regret signing the letter about genetically modified foods because, as scientists, we showed a degree of arrogance and a failure to recognise that we need to indulge in much greater dialogue."
Science and Politics - Debate in House of Lords 9 December 2003
Baroness Greenfield rose to call attention to mechanisms to improve communication between scientists and politicians with a view to better public understanding of scientific policies; and to move for Papers.
Lord Taverne: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as chairman of Sense About Science-an organisation set up to promote the evidence-based approach to scientific issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, as did the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned in her excellent and most stimulating speech the letter from the 114 scientists, which we helped to organise. They protested about the silence of the Government in the face of blatant misrepresentation of the results of the field-scale evaluation trials and mentioned that morale was low. I do not presume to speak for them. If I did, the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Turnberg, who signed the letter, would immediately put me right. However, perhaps I may give my personal opinion as to why morale is low, despite the fact that we have an excellent science Minister and the Government have considerably increased the science budget.
What is wrong is the Government's concern to appease the anti-science lobby groups. I shall give two examples. First, recently, the government chief scientist, for whom I have immense admiration, wrote to the press, obviously reflecting official policy, saying that the Government were neither for nor against genetic modification. Why is that so?
Not a single leading plant biologist has any doubts that it is a technology that offers great potential benefits. GM cotton, for example, already benefits 5 million small third-world farmers. If he had said that the Government were neither for nor against particular applications, that would have been understandable. Whether an application is beneficial or harmful depends entirely on the circumstances, as, indeed, the trials have shown. However, to be neutral about the technology is like being neither for nor against science. Science, too, can be misapplied.
I turn to the second example. The Government set up the AEBC-the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. Whom did they appoint as the lay members of the council? The answer is: the chair of Greenpeace; the chair of the Soil Association; another representative from Genewatch, a clone of Greenpeace; and another dedicated opponent of GM crops. They are supposed to represent the public when, in fact, they represent highly political lobby groups, ideologically opposed to GM, which do not give a hoot about evidence. No wonder the consultation exercise was such a fiasco. It is no help to scientists to bring dedicated opponents of science into the heart of policy-making. Appeasement simply strengthens the opposition.
I want to make one more point, not related to the subject matter of the letter. Scientists have been told that science should be more democratic, that they must take more notice of public fears and communicate better. I believe that that current conventional wisdom is at least partly misconceived. Science is not a
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democratic activity any more than is art. Galileo once famously said of Church interference with the pursuit of truth:
"Why, this would be as if an absolute despot, being neither a physician nor an architect but knowing himself free to command, should undertake to administer medicines and erect buildings according to his whim-at grave peril of his poor patients' lives, and the speedy collapse of his edifices".
The same would be true if the demos were substituted for the despot.
As for public misunderstandings, to blame scientists is largely to misinterpret their role. Of course scientists should be as open as possible. It is wonderful when someone such as the late Peter Medawar or, to put it in present terms, people such as Richard Dawkins or Robert Winston enthuse the public about science. But communication is not the primary job of scientists. That is to do good science. Einstein was not a worse scientist because he did not speak like Demosthenes or write like Jane Austen. The way in which the public learn about science is, and will always primarily be, through the media. Scares about GM food, pesticides, the MMR vaccine and mobile phone masts are not the fault of scientists but of the media.
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Lord Winston: My Lords, we all owe the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, a debt for introducing this important debate. There is no doubt that something of a crisis is affecting trust in science, the advice given by scientists and, indeed, the recruitment of scientists to university.
My noble friend Lady Jay mentioned stem cell and embryo research as being two outliers that do not follow the normal pattern in that they have been accepted by the public. I suspect that that is partly because government were largely uninvolved in those debates and partly because the public well understood that that research was potentially of great benefit. That was an example of genuine dialogue-a matter to which I shall return shortly.
However, as many speakers, especially the noble Lord, Lord May, said, communication is only the tip of the iceberg. As he said, it seems that the more knowledge, the more distrust-something to which he referred in his Royal Society presidential speech last year and again today. We scientists have to learn something that will be difficult and take a considerable time. It was addressed in the Science and Society report so able chaired by my noble colleague-may I call him a friend?-Lord Jenkin.
First, we scientists will have to show much greater sensitivity to ethics and ethical attitudes-that will be clear. Secondly, we must reinforce public ownership of science, which will be even more difficult. With all due respect to the Minister, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, it is not right to say that the Government were generous with their science funding. We are extremely grateful to the Minister, but the Government are spending the taxpayers' money, so it is the public who support science. As scientists, we are servants of society, not primarily servants of government. We need to keep a distance from government, which will be a very difficult act. It will be even more difficult for us to demonstrate that sometimes the public will take views that we do not share because they want to have ownership of science. I argue, therefore, that we need to retain independence of government.
As mentioned, we must recognise that science is not certain. The problem is that the Government and Ministers want black and white, another reason for our being wary of being too much in the government pocket. We must also avoid exaggeration and over-confidence. Ministers want that, and we are too ready to ascribe to it, because funds may chase that exaggeration, but we should be very wary. With all due respect to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in some ways I regret signing the letter about genetically modified foods because, as scientists, we showed a degree of arrogance and a failure to recognise that we need to indulge in much greater dialogue.
Another reason to be careful of government is that, above all, we must beware of commercial concerns, which increasingly drive science. Not unreasonably, the Government, and future governments, will wish to stimulate commerce, because it is one way of driving universities. But it is a danger for us. One of the clear
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reasons why GM foods received such a disastrous scientific assessment by the public was that they saw no value to them but saw the risk of commerciality.
As my friend Professor Kathy Sykes of Bristol University has said, it is important to engage in dialogue. Recently, in her inaugural lecture, she said that we should not underestimate the public-my goodness, that is right. It would be good to see more universities such as Bristol University indulge actively in that activity, helping to identify concerns and issues and trying to get proper representation of the public, not merely pressure groups.
There are certain things that we should be doing. First, we should advance ethical debate. We need to establish informal links between scientists and Members of Parliaments, as the Royal Society has already started to, which might be done in many ways. We must train scientists, who are not ready to express themselves and do not readily listen to the public. We need more university investment in engagement. Perhaps we should revisit the research assessment exercise, which inhibits many who might engage with the public from doing so. As has been said, we as scientists must understand the nature of science. So often we do not understand it; we present it as black and white.
Finally, we must listen; we must recognise that other members of the public may not share our view and that we may have to abandon some advances, even though we think that they are right to pursue. Above all, we must allow time. That is not an easy exercise and it will take considerable time to get the public to see that we have good faith in what we are doing. One thing that we are doing badly is failing to recognise where scientific problems and issues may lie in the future and getting ahead of the game.
Lord May of Oxford: My Lords, applications of advances in scientific understanding have offered and continue to offer many possibilities for making life better in both developed and developing countries. But, as the past century has shown, they also run the risk of unintended adverse consequences, of which climate change and diminishing biological diversity are but two among several. So the real question is how do we learn to do a better job of asking which doors to open and which doors to leave closed?
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In all such decisions, scientific facts and scientific uncertainties set the stage, putting constraints on the possible choices. Ideally, a drama of public debate and democratic choice is then played out on that stage. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that science has a special role in framing the stage. But science has no special voice in making the choices, which usually rest on values, beliefs and feelings.
I take a more up-beat view than many of the previous speakers in the debate in that I believe the UK public-or, to be more accurate, the many different UK publics-and the present UK Government, including our excellent science Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, have done rather well in framing and openly conducting recent debates, for example, on stem cell research, on aspects of new methods of genetic modification of crops and much else. Lapsing into my characteristic mode of academic patronising utterance, I would give them an A-/B+. That has to be read against the fact that I am not a victim of grade inflation and that I would give most other countries a C or a D or, in some notable cases, a resounding F.
Indeed, pausing for a commercial while at the same time confessing an interest, I believe that the Royal Society in particular has played an active-and sometimes an aggressive and energetic-part in some of these debates. Even so, the best such debates remain clouded by at least three kinds of misunderstanding.
The first misunderstanding is that the public do not trust scientists. People have always distrusted "the new", but in earlier times they expressed their distrust in a greatly more draconian manner-for instance, in the burning of Bruno. Galileo, who has been referred to repeatedly in the debate, merely got shut in his house and was asked to mumble the truth under his breath. A couple of centuries ago there were riots in the streets when vaccination first appeared.
Many recent polls show that the general public believe that, "scientists and engineers make a valuable contribution to society"- 84 per cent according to one poll-and that, "scientists want to make life better for the average person"- 64 per cent according to the same poll. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, reminded the House, the same people worry that the pace of scientific advice today is too fast for the Government to keep up with effective oversight and regulation. That is a worry that strikes me as sensible.
The second misunderstanding is that people would worry less if only they knew more about science. In fact, polls-especially polls in different countries of the European Union-show that the more the general citizenry know about science the more they worry. As I am sometimes misunderstood, I hasten to add that I am not advocating that we therefore educate people less in science; quite the contrary. The finding makes a great deal of sense. The more you know about science, the more you worry about unintended consequences.
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The third and most difficult misunderstanding was touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, at the outset-that is, the widely-held feeling that science is about certainty. After all, that is how we meet it in school; mostly in university; certainly on quiz shows. You cannot run a quiz show without there being a lack of ambiguity in the answers. But, in its essence, science is much more about asking questions than about certain answers.
That is not to say that the result of many past questions, systematically pursued through fact-based observations and experiments, is knowledge that today is effectively certain-the second law of thermodynamics; the inverse square law of gravitation; that HIV causes AIDS. The problem is that many of the contemporary issues that bear upon us-should we worry about mobile phones; will GM crops further intensify agriculture and harm the environment; can adult cells deliver the benefits we look to from embryonic stem cells - lie at or beyond the frontiers of knowledge. Here it is vital that we are clear about what is known, what questions remain open and how we are seeking to address them.
The problem is not helped by people-many of them well intentioned-who derive absolute certainty from fixed ideological positions that override any experimental fact. But it is on this cluttered, messy stage that the debates of choice must be conducted. I believe that the world will be a better place for all of us by advancing such debates in an open and committed manner.