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Dr Bill Durodié

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Spiked-proposals: science
To help build a more advanced world, the government should stop hiding behind 'precaution' and 'participation', and encourage scientists to experiment and to think big.

Policymakers are conscious of the need to sustain and boost scientific innovation in order to retain a leading role for British industry in the twenty-first century. Yet the government is constrained by its sensitivity to public fears, often hiding behind the ideas of 'precaution' and participation'.

To help build a more advanced world, the government should:

  1. Stop hiding behind 'precaution'.

    In an increasingly risk-averse society, decision-makers feel the need to communicate any perceived scientific uncertainty to the public. This approach is currently being formalised through the development and adoption of the 'precautionary principle' (1), which holds that any scientific development that has the possibility of adverse effects should be prevented - even if there is no scientific evidence that a risk exists.

    But while caution is a necessary consideration, it should not be turned into a principle. As we can never know anything with absolute certainty, the principle creates a potential justification to restrict or ban anything (2). As many scientific inquiries now conclude with an almost ritual reiteration of the need to err on the side of caution, whatever the evidence (or lack of it) of a particular risk, the use of the precautionary principle today tends to create or exacerbate unnecessary, unfounded or unassuageable fears.

  2. Stop hiding behind 'participation'.

    The government has encouraged, and scientists have allowed, the inclusion of 'members of the public' (on the whole, members of consumer, environmental and other interest groups) on to scientific advisory committees. This is held to democratise science and allow decision-makers to be in touch with 'the people' (3).

    Comparing the subjective opinions of the public to the considered deliberations of experts denigrates science, and panders to the conceit of those who claim to represent the public. And if things go wrong, rather than be held accountable for their decisions based upon the available scientific evidence, politicians and officials are able to point to other participants in the decision-making process who should now share responsibility for any problems that ensue - the public.

    Scientific expertise at the highest level is crucial, to inform democratic decision-making. But consequent decisions should be taken by democratically accountable politicians, not by hand-picked officials or self-appointed interest groups. Science itself cannot be 'democratised', and attempts to do so can only hamper the work of scientists (4).

  3. Encourage scientists to experiment.

    The government argues that: 'We should invest more to be at the cutting edge of science'. (5) But while funding is always welcome, there is a far easier way to boost the morale of scientists and ensure leading-edge research is carried out - simply by allowing the scientists to get on with it.

    Scientists today are burdened with an ever-increasing number of ethics committees (6), generally selected from the 'great and good'. But ethics, unlike science, cannot be experimentally verified. Ethics committees act as a gatekeeper for broader social and political ideas or prejudices, and are yet another hurdle for hard-pressed scientists to overcome before they can even start upon their investigations.

  4. Encourage scientists to think big.

    Science continually challenges prejudice and authority, and so is one of the most important of all political tools. Yet it is unusual today to meet a scientist prepared to talk and express views on matters outside of their perceived area of expertise. Policymakers, on the other hand, tend to narrow the scope of science to that of a body of technique, or emphasise its links to business.

    But science can generate technology, commerce and much else besides, such as informed debate or aspirations to a more advanced, rational and egalitarian society.

    Encouraging scientists to recognise that, while science may affect society, the reverse relationship is far more significant, would be a positive step. Just as the initial dynamic behind science was a broader social dynamic, so the absence of social progress today has circumscribed our confidence in science. It is this debate in which scientists and politicians should be seeking to engage, if they truly seek our respect and support.

(1) See the European Commission communication on the precautionary principle

(2) See Minister: precautionary principle has 'got out of hand', by Bill Durodié

(3) See for example Report No 153 of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology - 'Open Channels: Public dialogue in science and technology', March 2001

(4) See Science by committee, by Bill Durodié

(5) See the 2001 Labour Party manifesto, available from the Labour Party website

(6) See Let stem cell research begin, by Toby Andrew

Published on Spiked, 7 June 2001