§ Lord Jenkin of Roding rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science and Society (3rd Report, Session 1999–2000, HL Paper 38).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to see on the list of speakers the name of my noble friend Lord Waldegrave of North Hill. It will be his maiden speech and we very much look forward to hearing from him. He was one of my junior Ministers in my last job in government and I have the highest admiration for him.
§ It is rare for almost 12 months to elapse between a Select Committee report and a debate on it. I believe that it must be even rarer for a Select Committee report to have been greeted with such enthusiasm, including by the Government, as this one on science and society.
§ Not only has interest been shown but, as I hope to illustrate, the report has been followed by significant action by some of the leading players in this field. For that measure of our influence, we owe much gratitude to our witnesses and, in particular, to our two specialist advisers, Professor John Durant, who, at the time, was deputy director of the Science Museum, and Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University. Contrary to the view that I heard expressed recently by at least one distinguished scientist, I have been impressed by how much hard science has to gain from listening to the social scientists. They have much wisdom to impart.
§ The five main messages of our report can be stated briefly, perhaps at the risk of some over-simplification. First, we were confronted with a paradox. Despite a manifest public appetite for popular science, shown in many different ways, and public recognition of the benefits of technology, there was also much convincing evidence of what we called "a crisis of trust", taking the form of widespread scepticism about the pronouncements of scientists. As we said, undoubtedly something is seriously wrong. That is our first message.
The second message to emerge from the evidence is that if our science is not alone in facing public scepticism, it faces a particular challenge because it involves people's values, their attitudes, and their ethical and moral views. I shall quote just one paragraph—paragraph 2.49—from our report:
It is a difficult challenge to get this balance right: on the one hand to address the scientific questions seriously, but on the other hand to avoid reducing the whole public issue to one of science. A
negative public response to expert assertions on issues involving science may be mistaken as negative to science, when in reality people are responding negatively to the way in which this reduction to a 'scientific issue' alone distorts or excludes other legitimate concerns".
That message is crucial to an understanding of the whole process of science communication.
§ The third main message is the need to recognise that the top-down, one-way concept embodied in the phrase "the public understanding of science" must now give way to what we call "a new mood of dialogue"—of listening to the public, as well as informing them. That must be a two-way process. One of our American witnesses, in the customary picky way that they have, said that dialogue requires ears as well as voices. Although much excellent work has been done under the rubric of "the public understanding of science", that concept does not match today's more critical questioning.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Porter of Luddenham, suggested that instead of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, we should now have a council on science and society—a phrase that resonated with many of our witnesses. That proposal has yet to be embraced by COPUS, and I shall say a little more about that body in a few moments.
§ The fourth main message is very obvious: there needs to be a new culture of openness and transparency, particularly, but not only, on the part of regulators. We argue that there should be a presumption of openness with, as in America, meetings held in public. It is good to know that that is now happening here.
§ Our fifth main message concerns the media, and I shall say a few more words about that. Many in science blame the media for their woes. Journalists complain that it is often easier to obtain information from American than from British sources. The Select Committee in another place called for special rules to apply to science reporting. However, we did not agree. Our conclusion was clear: scientists must learn to take the rough with the smooth. In a free society, and with a free press, science cannot look for any special protection from the media. During our study, the Royal Society published two sets of guidance—one addressed to the media and the other addressed to scientists. Both seemed to us to be sensible and we commended them to those concerned.
§ Last year I learned indirectly that the Press Complaints Commission was not altogether happy, either with the proposals of another place or with our own. It was only this Wednesday that I learned to my considerable surprise that an initiative was taken last year by a body of which I had not previously heard called the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. In consultation, so it is said, with the Royal Institution, the Royal Society and several medical bodies, it has drawn up another set of guidelines which this time has been endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission.
I first heard about that on Wednesday when I received a letter from my noble friend Lord Wakeham, chairman of the commission. He wrote to me apologising that he would be unable to take part in this
debate but informing that he was very "pleased with the outcome"—that is, with the new guidelines. He added:
I would be enormously grateful if you would underline my concern that, now that such guidelines exist, it is important for people to use them. Standards of reporting are raised on the back of effective complaints to us—and I would welcome any examples of inaccurate reporting being brought to my attention".
§ I wonder to how many of your Lordships the existence of the guidelines came as a total surprise. I am told that they were published last September, but I certainly knew nothing about them until my noble friend sent them to me on Wednesday. Since then, I have been trying to find out who is responsible for promulgating and circulating them. The answer, I must inform your Lordships, is that nobody has accepted that responsibility. I discovered yesterday that the British Association for the Advancement of Science—even that important body—did not know that the guidelines existed. The Royal Society does not know whether they are intended to replace the guidelines that we commended in the report, or whether both sets of guidelines are intended to exist side by side.
§ One hopeful sign is that the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, was one of those named in the new guidelines as having taken part in the consultation process. I hope that the noble Lord will tell the House rather more about the background to that development.
§ If the Press Complaints Commission has endorsed the new guidelines—they seemed to me to be eminently sensible—science may have won a new ally. Surely, however, it is of the utmost importance that everyone concerned should know about them, that they should be widely circulated and that someone should take charge of them and carry the process forward.
§ When I talked to the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford yesterday, it told me that it was proposing to establish a series of workshops for scientists and journalists. I expressed the hope that that initiative, which I welcome, would include editors and subeditors as well as science correspondents.
§ There is much unfinished work in this context, and I look forward to the Minister's response. I do not know whether the situation is a surprise to him; it was certainly a surprise to me.
The Government's response accepted the five main points—as I said, I have oversimplified the situation—and almost all of our 26 detailed recommendations. It has been even more encouraging to discover how many people and bodies out there are acting on our report. I was recently told by two well-respected commentators:
The report has put the final nail in the coffin of the public understanding … approach to science communication … it has given increased confidence to those, especially scientists, who believe that a more interactive, consultative approach is the way forward".
Last year, within days of the publication of our report, an article in the journal Research Fortnight stated:
The Natural Environment Research Council is to revise its policy on the public understanding of science in the light of last month's report on science and society from the House of Lords science and technology committee".
The director-general of the research councils told me that the chairmen and chief executives of all of the councils had got together last year for a special consultation to plan how to respond to the report. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about that. Since then, a £4.5 million programme has been announced involving the Economic and Social Research Council for research on science and society. The research, involving a range of disciplines, will be designed to bring about a better understanding of the changing relationships between scientists and those with whom they interact, of the processes of "engaging" the citizen—that phrase echoes our report—and of changes in the governance of science. Those points were all central in our report.
§ Last November, a new Science and Society Forum was launched in Portcullis House. The central aim of that forum is to identify and evaluate the wide range of current and planned experiments in "public engagement"—that is another phrase used in our report. Action is based on sound evidence of what works.
The British Council told us in its evidence that it was developing what it called a science and society brand. Its director of science, Dr Lloyd Anderson, told me about the various initiatives that it was developing. One initiative involved an Internet conference, in which nearly 500 people from 34 countries took part. He told me about one interesting phenomenon that emerged, which I am sure is mirrored in this country and in others. He said:
As the e-conference progressed, it was as if there were two tribes, so removed from each other that they had begun to speak different languages … One side tended instinctively to see scientists as pathfinders, finding a way for the rest of society to follow. The other talked about science in society and meant it—even if the implication was that the scientists should submit to increased social control. The gulf between the two tribes colours all efforts to forge a democratic science".
We should all take notice of that.
Although such activity is interesting, it is pointless unless it leads to concrete action on the ground. I want to refer to two major practical initiatives by two of the major players. The British Association has a long and distinguished record of working to build the public's appreciation of science. Its national science week is now a popular annual event. It is not surprising that it has been one of the moving spirits behind a proposed new collaborative institution in South Kensington. Together with the Science Museum, the Wellcome Trust and three major foundations, it is working to establish the Queen's Gate centre for science and society next door to the Science Museum. Those organisers said:
It will be the venue for public debate, and genuine, two-way dialogue between the public and scientists, on issues in contemporary science".
It goes on to point out that it is a timely response to the recent report of our committee. A few days ago I was told that it may be called the science and society centre.
§ Then there is the very important Royal Society initiative. Last November, Sir Aaron Klug, the retiring president, delivered his anniversary address, his last as 409 president. He gave us a brilliant review of the history of human genome research and discovery which should be compulsory reading for every sixth former in the land. It is eminently readable and designed for laymen.
He went on to make a very important announcement which I should like to read in full:
One of the highlights of the year was a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on Science and society".
It captured a theme with which the Royal Society had been concerned for some years, he said, adding,
I am delighted to announce that our activities in this area have received a major boost through a most generous gift—£1 million over live years—from the Kohn Foundation".
Dr Ralph Kohn is a very noted philanthropist, supporting both the arts and science. Sir Aaron went on:
This has enabled us to create a Science in Society Committee, chaired by Sir Paul Nurse, to take forward a range of initiatives aimed at facilitating this vital dialogue".
I was intrigued to see that the first headline in the media release was:
Royal Society to spend Elm on listening to the public".
That might be a slight over-simplification but it captures the message of our report.
As recently as last Friday, there was the Wellcome Trust's MORI survey on the role of scientists in public debate. I quote from the press release:
Nine in ten scientists believe that the public need to know more about the social and ethical implications of scientific research, according to a new study from … the Wellcome Trust … The study found that 69 per cent of the scientists believe that the main responsibility"—
hang on to those words—
for engaging the public in debate about the social and ethical impact of scientific research lay with scientists themselves. But they also felt that science-funders, the government and journalists have a role to play".
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of that piece of research. It is an extremely authoritative survey and, not surprisingly, the Wellcome Trust's director, Mike Dexter, said:
This research explodes the stereotype of the secretive and aloof scientist. Scientists are people with families, too, and they clearly want science to move forward in a socially responsible way".
That may be hype but there is a good deal of truth in it and we need to recognise that.
§ But few scientists have the training to be able effectively either to communicate with the media or with the public. Many believe that the funding authorities should now give incentives and encourage them to spend time on communications. Our inquiry was told that some of the authorities, perhaps a number of the universities, actively discourage researchers from communicating with the public.
§ I must ask the Minister how the Government are going to respond to that powerful case. We recommended that the funding council should have a separate funding stream to reward such work. In their response, the Government rejected that. The MORI 410 survey has now powerfully reinforced the case for some fresh action and, I believe, some earmarked funding.
§ Before I sit down, I must come back to COPUS. It told us it was carrying out a full review. It has had to address the question of whether there is need for an umbrella body. We were in no doubt that the answer must be "Yes" and I am told that already people are expressing disappointment at some of the failures of communication and unnecessary duplication over recent months. In my view, the sooner that COPUS or its successor can get back to work, the better. I was told the other day that as regards that side of its activities COPUS has been in abeyance. That is a field above all in which there should be co-operation, collaboration, the sharing of experience and the development of best practice. The Wellcome MORI survey confirmed that there is a real hunger for leadership and training on the part of scientists. There needs to be more encouragement by the authorities. Communication with the public needs to be seen not just as an optional add-on but as a legitimate and central part of the professional work of scientists.
§ In all that, the voice of the reformed COPUS, or whatever it is to be called, must be heard loud and clear. I am told that that is in hand. A full-time staff member is now in place and the new council is being set up and is positioning itself as a one-stop shop for science communication. But all that is taking a very long time. I must ask the Minister whether he can tell the House what his department is doing to encourage progress. Will it now accept the need to fund that activity overtly and directly, as recommended by our committee?
§ There are many other questions that I could ask but I have spoken for long enough. I look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords in the debate. I believe that ours is a valuable report but we are impatient for results. We look to the Government to give a lead and I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply will indicate that he and they accept that challenge. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science and Society (3rd Report, Session 1999–2000, HL Paper 38).—(Lord Jenkin of Roding.)
§ 11.26 a.m.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, first, it is my pleasant duty and great privilege, as chairman of the parent committee, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for his excellent chairmanship of this sub-committee of the Select Committee. His chairmanship was truly distinguished. He has produced a most important report on science and our endeavours in science. The scientific community at large is extremely grateful to him.
It is also wonderful to see him back in full fettle in this House, having had a short illness. We are extremely grateful for that too. It was extremely good that we were able to communicate repeatedly, using the latest electronic means while he was absent from the House.
411 It is also extremely good to see the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, in his place. I am sure that noble Lords will agree with me that it is very good for science that two of our very best Ministers and former science Ministers are in this House to speak in the debate. I look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave. I do not quite know why he is batting at No. 11 but then the Minister is not batting until No. 17, so he has got to listen to a great deal more still.
The perception of science has never been more important. That is obvious. We have seen, in the past two or three years, the most disastrous consequences for that sector when things have gone wrong. It is clear that mistakes have been made in relation to perceptions as regards genetically modified foods. Other matters will arise which are also extremely important.
This House has an important role to play in the perception of science. To that extent, the Select Committee has done an extremely good job in tending to produce reports which, and having chairmen who, flag up issues which are important in science and in society. In a sense, this report is simply part of that continuum.
It seems to me that, as never before, this House has focused on science. It is interesting to consider that we have not only the Select Committee but also two new ad hoc committees—one on stem cells and one on animal research. Although they cover very important ethical issues, they have scientific matters as their basis which will need very careful scientific scrutiny and input.
Many scientists believe that consideration should be given to more scientific input in this House. It is clear that there are large numbers of lawyers and ex-politicians here, but it might not be bad to see more people from the field of technology and science, given its importance for our economy and for the way in which we shall need to conduct our affairs in this country in the future.
One of the problems in science is the appearance of extremely effective single-interest pressure groups, which persuade the debate in a particular direction, often in a way which is extraordinarily biased. A typical example was the stem cell debate. I understand that major ethical issues are at stake. However, most of such issues had been explored in detail by scientists 20 years earlier. Robert Edwards was thinking about the issues in ethical terms and published work on them long ago.
As the debates came up in both Houses, there was an extraordinary frisson of activity. Members in this House and the other place were bombarded by members of the public who, quite rightly, had deep concerns about, and often deep objections to, the kind of research that scientists were suggesting. I believe that those people did not always represent the overriding body of general opinion. That, surely, was reflected in the vote in both Houses, but it had a profound effect. There were huge objections.
412 On the morning of the debate I was involved in a television interview outside the gates of the House. I was being watched by two policemen when I was interrupted by a perfectly moral lady who felt that she had a great cause. She repeatedly tried to interrupt and hector me. Although I never laid a hand on her, she accused me in the Catholic Herald of having assaulted her. It would be rather difficult for me to assault anybody on camera, with two policeman watching at the gate. However, that is not the point. Once the protests were over and the debate decided, not one of us received a single letter about the way Parliament voted. I believe that people's initial objections to science and technology are often greater than they are once the issues are clearly explained. We need to do much more to explain our role as scientists in society.
It is often forgotten that most scientists pursue science with a strong feeling of altruism. They do so in poorly paid jobs because they want to help society and improve the lot of mankind.
There is also the argument about God and science. I do not consider for one moment that the two are incompatible. As scientists, we are given the works of creation. It is our duty and a matter of free will that we try to use our God-given intelligence to promote, protect and maintain human life. That is widely recognised in different forms among scientists, but often forgotten in society. The suspicion which surrounds scientists is unfortunate and needs to be changed. There is a need for more ethical debates of this type involving scientists.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I am concerned about the role of the press. There is no doubt that in this country we have some outstanding science journalists, some of the best in the world. I have had contact with the other country which has outstanding science journalists; that is, the United States. Ours are certainly as good as theirs. We took evidence from notable journalists. I do not think that we can perhaps call Sir David Attenborough a journalist, but his evidence was remarkable and extraordinarily interesting, as was that given by Stephen O'Connor, Tim Radford and others about the attitude of the press.
One of the most scientifically literate of all the daily newspapers is the Daily Telegraph, where the excellent science correspondent, Roger Highfield, resides. One of the problems we perceived in the committee was the fact that although there are often good science journalists cautiously and properly reporting and checking their facts, that bears little relation to the perception often publicised by editors and news desks. That is a major problem.
I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the stem cell debate was conducted to the highest standards of this House, with serious argument and profound concern for the issues. The following day the Daily Telegraph had as its headline, "The Lords support" or "promote"—I forget the exact words, "human cloning". The debate was not about human cloning. We agreed that that is impossible and illegal. I believe that even therapeutic cloning is an 413 extraordinarily unlikely possibility, at least for several years. However, that perception by major newspapers, promoted in a rather irresponsible way, does a great deal of harm.
As scientists, we need to do much more outreach work. We could do much more in schools to promote our work. Most scientific laboratories have as their backbone a PhD student. He is poorly paid and often under heavy stress, but eloquent when explaining his work to other young people. Those people should be much more welcomed, invited in, and promoted by schools to talk about their work. There is clearly a problem in schools. That is a matter to which we shall return. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, feels strongly about the matter and I suspect she may want to address it, so I shall not enter that territory. However, there is no question but that there are problems, particularly at key stage 3, when there is a refocusing of the curriculum for children as they approach GCSE level. Often, children become illiterate in science.
One of the greatest threats facing us in terms of science and society, certainly in biosciences, concerns our attitude towards animal work, and probably in the physical sciences the issues relating to energy usage and global warming. In the case of animal work, there is no doubt that perceived pressure may persuade people down a route which will not promote human welfare, happiness or well-being and which will do little for the humanity with which we must treat animals.
We have a major job to do in the future with perception. That is one of the reasons why this debate is important. Animal research is essential for human welfare. It is worth considering, for example, that every single drug we take is based on animal research, as it must be. Without it, such drugs would be unsafe. We need to try to get across that sort of message to the public. We also need much more serious debate about the use of nuclear energy.
Before I sit down, I should like to pay tribute to a number of organisations which have done outstanding work in the field of public outreach. The British Association for the Advancement of Science devotes its entire work to public understanding of science. It has done extraordinarily well in promoting effective press activity and in publicising what is best in British science. It clearly has a major impact. Another organisation which is stupendous, and where we certainly score heavily over the Americans, is the Wellcome Trust. It has done immensely good work. It continues to do work which is open, patently useful and brings together science and the public.
I am pleased to say that the Royal Society has become much less opaque. It now presents the public with documents which are easy to read and easy to assimilate. The museums are also doing an extraordinarily good job in promoting science, in terms of the innovative way in which they exhibit. Such matters are important in terms of how they are supported by government in the future. They certainly contribute to the public's understanding of science.
414 Finally, it is important that the research councils and those responsible for university funding arrive at mechanisms which ensure that we give points to people who speak for science in a responsible fashion. Much more can be done about that. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, quite rightly, that at present in many universities scientists are penalised for doing that. On the contrary, the activity should be greatly promoted. I am grateful for the report, which covers many important issues. I commend it to the House.
§ 11.40 a.m.
§ Lord Taverne
My Lords, I am much impressed by the report. It is one of many valuable reports issued by the committee. However, I found it particularly illuminating because it told me a lot that I did not know. It seems eminently sensible and wise in its recommendations. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, on the way in which he introduced it.
It is obviously right that scientists, the Government, the regulators and companies should be more open; that scientists should learn to be more extrovert and should listen and communicate better; and that the press should be urged to adopt a code of conduct. As I have been invited to do so, I shall comment briefly on such a code of conduct.
The committee's report includes and commends helpful guidelines by the Royal Society for both editors and scientists working with the media. However, I want to commend the fuller code of practice proposed by the body referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin: the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. I played a minute part in the preparation of the report but it is nevertheless of excellent quality. It has many distinguished contributors, including people such as Sir John Krebs and Professor Susan Greenfield.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked why the code of practice has not received wider publicity and circulation. The answer is that it is an admirable effort by a very small institution which until recently had no funding for the promotion of the code of practice. The institution has now received funding and I am delighted to say that it will be initiating a series of meetings in order to publicise the code.
The code which is recommended by the SIRC starts by demonstrating how important it is to get science stories right. Misleading stories can be positively dangerous, and can even cost lives. The MMR vaccine and the pill scares are cases in point. Indeed, false hopes can also be raised which can have a devastating effect on people with terminal illnesses.
The code goes on to set out in greater detail than does the Royal Society what is required to establish the credibility of the people who carried out an investigation; the credibility of the way the investigation was conducted; and the credibility of the findings themselves. It points out the need for special scrutiny where findings challenge existing assumptions and differ from previous knowledge. It contains a large number of most valuable recommendations which I regret I cannot deal with during my speech.
415 If the recommendations were adopted by the press, many of the problems relating to the public's understanding of science would be solved. But it may be a somewhat optimistic expectation that they will be adopted, although I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has accepted the recommendations in the code and that they have been endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission.
There is one aspect of the Select Committee's report which I find slightly disappointing. More openness and better education and communication are obviously desirable. However, in my view, perhaps the single most important source of our problems lies with the press and to a lesser extent with the broadcast media. On this issue, the report somewhat pulls its punches—perhaps understandably so.
My first complaint is about the intellectual sloppiness of much science reporting. The media often get things wrong because they do not bother to get things right. I heard an example only the other day on the BBC about the mapping of the human genome. The newsreader said that the genome,determines the life and death of every individual".That is, of course, complete nonsense. Not only is the statement totally lacking in precision, but it is obvious nonsense the moment you start to think about it. What about the impact of the environment and what about accidents?
I know that the subject of the human genome is complex. Indeed, the phrase "human genome" is misleading because there is not just one human genome but billions. The genome sequence contains the genetic code which profoundly influences our bodies, our behaviour and our minds, but if that was what the statement was trying to convey it was incorrect.
However, that is a minor complaint. Far more serious is the frequent deliberate distortion by the press and the wilful failure to correct the distortions if the correction does not suit the newspaper's agenda. In the case of the MMR vaccine scare, which was stirred up by the media, the fault lay, it seems, partly in a lack of balance and partly in a determination not to let science reporters spoil a good sensational story. More of that later. But in the "Frankenstein food" scare, the papers launched a campaign and then deliberately shut their eyes to any evidence that contradicted their stories and which showed that the scary headlines were unfounded. As the Select Committee's report found—and I thought it most interesting—science specialists on the campaigning papers were deliberately pushed aside.
The Pusztai saga and the GM food scares are a shameful indictment of British journalism. It all started when Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats, which he claimed poisoned them. When his experiments, which were not complete and were not confirmed by peer review, were thoroughly discredited, there was no attempt to correct the stories about "Frankenstein foods".
416 Reports by the Select Committees of both Houses, by the Royal Society and by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, let alone the result of some 50,000 experiments world-wide, were completely ignored. To acknowledge them was simply not part of the campaigning papers' agenda; and having created a mood of public panic, which drove genetically modified products from the supermarket shelves, the press then justified its stand by pointing to consumer pressures.
Yet, when part of the press is indifferent to the truth, or to evidence which contradicts the stand it takes, it undermines the health of our democracy. It is an exercise of power without responsibility—well known, of course, as the privilege of a certain section of society throughout the ages.
Television and radio are not as bad. They do not go for campaigns. But they also mislead and they increasingly follow the lead of the tabloids. That, I am afraid, is as true of the BBC as of the rest Why, for example, do news stories day after day lead with the Bulger case? Or, to return to the theme of the debate, why do they seem to encourage the new obsession with what happens to parts of bodies after death? In fact, it is not a new obsession; it is rather a return to primitive concerns that the body should be kept whole for resurrection or have its obol in its mouth so that Charon can ferry it across the Acheron.
The broadcast media have an admirable desire to keep a balance, which is a very important principle. But as your Lordship's report observes, there are problems when they feel that two sides of a case must at all costs be presented, however shaky one side's case may be. For example, the BBC gave the impression in the MMR controversy that a study of 12 people was just as deserving of an airing as one of more than 1 million. That is where the SIRC code would secure a proper balance.
Of course, majority scientific opinion is not always right. But the media should give some guidance as regards the weight which should be placed on the minority view. In the case of climate change, that is recognised. The evidence of global warming is not overwhelming but it is growing stronger all the time. Partly because on that issue the environmental pressure groups agree with the majority view, the media, too, accept it. But the evidence that transgenic crops are safe is much stronger than the evidence in favour of climate change. In fact, there is no evidence of danger to health at all. Potential damage to biodiversity should of course be taken more seriously; it is a different question. Would anybody gather that from the media discussions?
As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, pointed out, part of the trouble is that pressure groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace come into the equation. They are treated by the media as objective commentators, unlike representatives of companies. They are no more objective than companies; they have their own agenda and are campaigning organisations which depend on membership income. Nothing increases membership more than sensational headlines about environmental scare stories.
417 On some issues such groups are admirable; on others, they adopt an anti-science stance. They oppose even state-of-the-art incinerators which actually decrease pollution; they oppose all transgenic crops which, on the evidence so far, are likely to diminish the use of herbicides and pesticides. On those issues they have committed themselves to beliefs which have assumed the status of dogma which cannot be shaken by any regard to the weight of evidence. Yet are they ever cross-examined by John Humphrys and co in the way they would cross-examine a representative from a biotech company or a politician? The pressure groups are treated with a kind of awesome reverence that is normally reserved—quite rightly—for right reverend Prelates. The same is often true of those who oppose all animal experiments. They are rarely challenged with any suggestion that their stance costs lives.
I do not for a moment allege that the broadcast media are consciously biased, but there is an element of sloppiness about their reporting of scientific issues and an underlying assumption that they must share the prejudices of the tabloids. Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from the report is the recommendation that we should secure compliance with the Royal Society guidelines, or perhaps with the SIRC code. I hope that the Press Complaints Commission will enforce this code toughly and come down heavily on the kind of irresponsible and reckless disregard for fact and evidence which has characterised the reporting of many scientific issues in the past.
§ 11.52 a.m.
§ Earl Baldwin of Bewdley
My Lords, I speak as someone who was not involved with this report, though I was a co-opted member of the sub-committee which recently produced the report on complementary and alternative medicine on which some of your Lordships also served. I have become increasingly interested in issues at the interface between medical and scientific orthodoxy and those outside the mainstream. In my early days in your Lordships' House I spoke a bit about human health and the environment; in fact my maiden speech was on that subject, on the same day as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. I remember that after that debate he very kindly bought me a drink: I have an awful feeling that I have not yet reciprocated.
My first impression on reading this admirable report was how beautifully written it was. Clear, straightforward, concise English is something of a rarity, and when you find it it predisposes you to look sympathetically at the arguments. My reason for taking part today, however, is that there is one aspect of the relationship between science and society which I do not believe received a mention: or, if it did, the fault is mine for not reading carefully enough.
I think there are times when the problem lies not so much with a lack of comprehension by the public, nor with misleading treatment in the media, nor just with the perceptions referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, but with errors, either apparent or real, in the 418 science itself. This is another strand that can lead to mistrust if it is not addressed in an open fashion. Let me give examples.
Speaking 13 years ago on environmental dangers I drew attention to lead, mercury, asbestos, nuclear radiation, cigarette smoke and pesticides in the context of a pattern that seemed to repeat itself. I gave a kind of composite example, and said:At first one is assured by experts that there is no danger to human health at concentrations of less than 100 parts per million. After some years doubts begin to grow as it appears that some people may indeed be harmed at lesser concentrations. There is a lively debate, in which it is pointed out that the Russians have for some time been worried by any concentrations over 20 parts per million. Some time later … a new safety limit emerges at 15 parts".—[Official Report, 13/1/88; col. 1284.]I illustrated this with a recent newspaper report which said that,Nuclear radiation may be between five and 15 times as dangerous as previously thought".What is the public to make of these constant changes, and of the implication that they may have been at risk in the not-so-distant past?
In this case there may have been few shortcomings in the science. But it would be helpful, I think, if the scientific community were able to say publicly, "Yes, we know we said 10 years ago that such-and-such a dose was entirely safe, and we are now saying we are not even sure about one-hundredth of that dose; but that really was the best consensus at the time, honestly and scrupulously arrived at, and the discrepancy is only in the nature of scientific progress". I believe this could do wonders for public trust and understanding.
Other examples I fear show scientists in a less favourable light. Just over 10 years ago a press conference was called in advance of publication in the medical press of a study which purported to show that patients who attended the innovative Bristol Cancer Help Centre fared worse and died sooner than those who had only orthodox treatment. That study was in fact fatally flawed, but its consequences nearly ruined the Bristol Centre and there are many in the world of complementary medicine who will never trust mainstream researchers again. It is true that some errors of methodology were later acknowledged in the medical press, but it needed more than that to restore equilibrium. The study itself has never been retracted.
Another example is more recent. It concerns the fluoridation of the public water supply. There are strongly held views on both sides of this debate. On the one side the dental and medical communities have been saying for over 40 years that this is a very effective and entirely safe way of protecting children's teeth from decay, and of evening out inequalities in dental health; and they have persuaded governments of both complexions. On the other side many of the public object to being compelled to drink fluoridated water at 1 part per million, and are suspicious of the claims for safety. This Government, to their credit, commissioned a systematic review—the ne plus ultra of evidence-based medicine and the first ever undertaken in this field—working to the highest international scientific 419 standards, to settle the scientific issues. The findings have surprised many people, including the reviewers who spent nearly a year on the job; and the dental and medical associations are so far refusing to accept them. They show beyond question that the doubters were largely right: the evidence of benefit is remarkably thin for a public health measure and, worse, safety cannot be assured, and this after more than 40 years of absolute assurances from the medical scientists and open ridicule and even muzzling of those who dared to disagree.
What has this done for public confidence in science and scientists? What lessons need to be learnt? Sir Iain Chalmers, head of the UK Cochrane Centre, with whom I discussed this last week, would like to see more and earlier systematic scientific reviews of the thoroughness and transparency of the York fluoridation exercise where the public could make their own input as the review progressed. I suggest that society also needs to recognise the fallibility of science—and so do scientists. A white coat is small protection against the prejudices, pressures and wishful thinking that are part of being human. But beyond this, in the context of today's debate, I have come to think that there needs to be some act of completion (if that is the right word) from the side of science when things have gone conspicuously wrong. The report rightly advises against condescension, and paragraph 3.9 puts this well; but it needs to go further. I could see nothing in the report about the possible role for a post-mortem—something less than a full public inquiry for major issues such as BSE. I think that scientists, if they want to win trust, cannot afford simply to go on as though nothing had happened.
To take the case of fluoridation, the better communication that the report on science in society endorses should involve a public admission which might be on the following lines: "Dentists and public health officials were too carried away at a time when the demands of evidence were not as rigorous as they are today, and have been so concerned to protect children from the miseries of dental decay that they went over the top in what seemed a good cause, and were not as careful about the science as they should have been, despite warnings from a number of people along the way. Appropriate lessons will be learnt". Without some such acknowledgement, trust will be hard to regain. It is my belief (and I do not know if research has been done on this subject) that the absence of any audible and visible come-back from the scientific community when errors have been made has fuelled the suspicions that many in our society now harbour. Someone needs to take responsibility. There is nothing like a frank acknowledgement for clearing the air and restoring relationships.
One final point. The report has many helpful things to say about the media; but again, I think it is a little kind to science in its assumptions about how journalists should behave. I do not disagree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said, but my angle on this is a little different. My observation has been that when scientists go wrong, the media, and particularly print journalists, are sometimes asleep at 420 their posts. When the Bristol Cancer story broke, there was hardly a reporter who did not follow the orthodox line, some with undisguised glee, when it was not particularly hard to spot the flaws in the research. When the fluoridation reviewers reported last October, the great majority of the media simply repeated what they were fed by the British Dental Association: it was not in the least bit difficult to spend 20 minutes reading the conclusions of the report itself, which said something rather different.
I also happen to think that journalists give medical scientists far too easy a ride over the absence of real progress in cancer research—the lack of "bangs for bucks" as the Lancet put it on 9th December—and the need for more open accountability to the funding public. What I am saying is that, perhaps in contrast to some of your Lordships, I would hope to see in any guidance for editors something more than the Royal Society has drafted for them in Box 3 on page 59 of the report: namely, that journalists should be careful not to hand over their judgment to scientists but should do their homework and learn enough to question and probe just as their economic, political and sports colleagues do. The Royal Society would like journalists to deal with scientists who are deemed "credible"—I understand that, and the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, emphasised this point—because they represent the majority view; but they must not rely solely on those sources, otherwise we might still be seeing acupuncture and osteopathy described as quackery, and fluoridation as the best thing since long before sliced bread.
I feel these points are important in getting the balance right between science and society, and I hope that COPUS will consider taking them into account (in parenthesis, I think the committee was wise to suggest a change of name for that body for the reasons it gave in pararaphs 3.18 and 3.19). But none of this detracts from my admiration for a report from which I have personally learnt a great deal, and which I hope is widely read and followed up; and, from what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has told us the auguries for this seem to be good.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, I share other speakers' universal commendation of this very important report. The report was published some months ago now. During that period it has proved highly influential, not just in Parliament but a long way outside.
I should like to contribute a few remarks as a layman who has been involved—perhaps some would say interfering—in science policy over a number of years. My background is that in the 1980s I chaired the Agriculture and Food Research Council; and, indeed, for a period I was one of the predecessors of the none Lord, Lord Winston, as chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology.
Incidentally, the example of the Select Committee, which includes scientists, laymen such as myself and people from consumer organisations is very much a 421 model which should be commended outside Parliament. It is an organisation which has the ability to try and ensure that science is tested and informed by views way beyond those of the science community itself, although, of course, the science community makes a very important contribution to the committee.
We all recognise that science has changed dramatically in its attitude to society. The very phrase "public understanding of science" is no longer common parlance, although in the highly influential White Paper of 1993, only seven or eight years ago, inspired by my noble friend Lord Waldegrave and Professor Bill Stewart, it was the language of the time. As suggested by my noble friend Lord Jenkin, we have moved on from eyes and ears to dialogue. That is very much the message which comes out of the report.
There is bound to be concern at times about the progress of science and the implications of science or technology. It arises fundamentally when people do not understand whether the implementation or the execution of the science chimes happily with prevailing values. Where, however, it is seen to be in conformity with commonly held values there is usually not a great deal of long-term concern. As the report points out, we see this with human health care, a subject that people identify as being of high priority. Where the research is seen to contribute to human healthcare it usually gets stronger support, whereas in areas such as plant genetic modification for food and perhaps even nuclear physics and cloning the examples are not always so obviously understood.
Where adequate dialogue has taken place around the world, one gets a much more sophisticated debate than scientists perhaps five or 10 years ago would have thought feasible. I take as an example the referendum held in Switzerland on genetic modification. That country had a considerable stake in the biotechnology industry. It was determined to hold a referendum to see whether or not the industry should be continued and supported in that country. A national debate took place which involved a wide cross-section of the community. Indeed, the debate was very well informed.
I am not an expert on the Swiss tabloid press. I claim to know nothing about it, but I suspect that one would not have had headlines about "Frankenstein foods" and so on, because the public simply would not have tolerated that level of engagement. But where one does not conduct a dialogue, then these stories of "Frankenstein foods" and so on gain credence. Although I have no brief for our own media, I suspect that in the long run the only way to stop irresponsible media handling of such stories is to ensure widespread dialogue with institutional assumptions of openness and transparency, listening as well as contributing to the dialogue. That culture will ultimately ensure that the debate is conducted at the right level in all media.
Until relatively recently physical scientists did not adequately engage with the social scientists. My noble friend Lord Jenkin referred to this matter. I remember about 10 or more years ago the Royal Society's seminal paper on Risk Assessment—Risk Perception. 422 Two chapters had been written by the social scientists. That caused great heart-burning among some of the physical scientists who thought that this was not science at all. Nevertheless it dealt with the thorny issue of the extent to which risk perception can be described as rational or irrational. Nowadays one recognises immediately that the social scientists are perfectly correct to point out that where there is a perceived risk it may be, in numerical terms, illogical but is nevertheless a very real factor which must and should be considered by a policymaker. I do not think that anyone would dispute that. The reason why risk assessments vary is that there are underlying concerns about, perhaps, the clash with values or a mistrust of some of the fundamental procedures which are being conducted.
Four years ago I had the slightly unenviable task, I thought, of chairing a conference at Lancaster House on genetic modification attended by 300 people ranging from, at one extreme, the Natural Law Party, through to Zeneca and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Before the conference three workshop sessions were held on separate days; one for medical health; one for bioremediation; and one for food and agriculture. From this preparation and background it was clear again that the concept that if the rationale for the science can be understood and the risk seen to be equitable, then there will be support. But one has to demonstrate what the rationale for this research might be. In the case of human health—genetically modified vaccines where the risk is carried by those who are likely to benefit—not surprisingly there was very little controversy. At the other end of the spectrum, where the benefit would be carried by the shareholder of an agri-chemical company and the risk, if there were any, would be carried by, say, the European consumer, not unnaturally people thought this a rather poor deal.
Had the debate been concerned with enriching vitamin A—for example, rice—which is a perfectly logical application of this science, then the debate on plant genetic modification would have been rather better understood by some parties. It is the fault of the biotechnology industry that in its wisdom it chose to produce plants which were manipulated to be herbicide tolerant. In public relation terms, that was certainly not very clever.
I was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which is quoted on page 23 of the 21st report, Setting Environmental Standards. We tried to set out how the policymaker should recognise and encourage the articulation of public values. If science has ultimately to be informed by public values, it is a complicated and difficult exercise. One is bound to get conflicting views, sometimes from the same person, depending on which interest that person might be representing. One is bound to get a wide variation of views. We need to learn much more about creating a framework for conducting that debate, one which allows everyone to participate if they want to.
423 Since that seminal White Paper, to which I referred, things have moved on rapidly. On page 37 of the report, there is a whole list of different ways of conducting consultation at national and local levels. Perhaps I may draw from my own experience. I am currently chairman of the United Kingdom Chemical Stakeholder Forum. We bring together all interested parties—the chemical industry, conservation organisations, consumers and so on. I find it most humbling and interesting how, in discussion over a period of days, we achieve a much better understanding of where everyone is coming from. If this culture of openness, transparency, dialogue and information is to be adequately understood, we have to demonstrate that the kind of sensible policy statements put out by Sir Robert May in The Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making have been taken on board—not just in our government departments but in Europe as well. My suspicion, alas, is that the European Commission has still a long way to go to understand what is meant by transparency and openness.
The report has done an enormous service in demonstrating that the public can and must be involved in the formulation of strategies rather than merely consulted on already draft proposals. It means a complete change of culture and looking again at our institutional terms of reference. I commend the Select Committee on Science and Technology on this magnificent report.
§ 12.12 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Lincoln
My Lords, this careful and balanced report from the Select Committee is to be warmly commended for the adequacy of its review and the good sense of its recommendations. I want to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for the clarity of his introduction and to say also how much I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave. I have just a few comments which I hope will contribute to the important debate we are having today.
In considering science and society, and the relationship between them, one can easily conceptualise two very distinct groups—that of scientists, and that of members of society. The report does that and indeed identifies a third, distinctive group; that is those who work in the media. The energy of the report is given to seeing how scientists may be brought into a better relationship with members of society. Considerable space is given to seeing how the media can help, or hinder, that process. Simply put, it is like trying to make two into one, with the media acting as the go-between.
The dichotomy between scientists and society can be seen as a philosophical divide, with the scientists in the consequentialist or utilitarian corner, the public in the right-based or consumerist corner, and the media fuelling the differences. Scientists by necessity have to adopt consequentialist thinking, because the effects of their new discoveries cannot be known until they are 424 tried out. With the best will in the world, to be moral, all the scientist can do is to have the intention to maximise benefit and minimise harm, but he or she cannot promise all benefit and no harm. Developments in medical treatments have to be tested in the patients for whom they are intended before anyone can know whether they are acceptable or not. It is, if you think about it, unsurprising that the UK is in the vanguard of much scientific and medical research, for utilitarianism in its classical form was invented here, and utilitarianism still provides a moral framework for the research to take place. But such consequentialism, based as it is on future hopes, can compel more and more developments, with no counterbalancing word of caution about the way the developments are moving, or the nature of the harm that might have to be countenanced if the benefits are to be sought.
The public, in the other corner, represent human need and desire and fear. Their world is summed up by the statement, "It is my right to assert that if I don't want something, I don't have to have it". Respect for such individual autonomy acts as a counterbalance to unbridled utilitarianism. That is to say, if people do not want something, there is no point arguing that it will make them happy, and forcing it upon them. Often individual, right-based claims are selfish and "NIMBYish", but sometimes they are unexpectedly wise. Ignoring them for the sake of a predicted, future, greater good can be perilous.
Seen in these lights, the two camps are really very different in their approaches and their values. But, as the report recognises, things are not that black and white. There is sensitivity to public concern among scientists, who are in any case frequently funded by commercial organisations that have to have an eye to consumer demand. There is more sophistication among the public, a public sometimes only too willing strangely to surrender individual claims for the sake of the common good. The two groups, despite philosophical differences, are closer to each other than the media, which highlight differences to create that frictional spark that makes the headline, frequently portray.
So rather than try to make the two one, I should like to suggest some uniting factors between the two groups. The obvious uniting factor is that every member of each group—and indeed the media—is a human being; and every one of us, in my terms, is a child of God. This, I would argue, grants us all three qualities that are relevant to finding a meeting place for scientists and the public. These are, first, the desire for truth; secondly, the experience of wonderment; and thirdly, the need to face the challenge of behaving morally, or, again in my particular terms, to discover the will of God.
The point at which a scientist is simply trying to discover the truth about phenomena is not a point within a moral framework, because he or she is
trying to do anyone any good, but only to find out mort At that stage scientists are not utilitarians. They are like the rest of us in other fields, as the noble Lord, Lore Winston, reminded us, seekers after truth. When some new fact is uncovered, they, like us, when we read about 425 it, are full of wonderment. Similarly, when a newspaper reports the discovery of, for example, a new galaxy, or the small number of genes that distinguish humans from mice, the reading public is not a consumer, but an awe-struck sharer of the news.
Scientific discovery, of course, quickly becomes scientific application, especially in the realms of bioscience and communications technology. That is the point at which the moral struggle begins, as we all try to work out what is right and wrong. That activity of discernment, like the search for truth and the experience of wonder, is the birthright of every human being. It does not lie merely within the provenance of the so-called expert ethicists, although help can often be sought from such quarters; and at this point, neither compelling utilitarianism nor unbridled consumerism will suffice to light the ethical path; nor can decisions about the application of scientific discoveries be made quickly. Here again I commend the possibility of a meeting place for scientists, society and the media, a place where we are all united in our aim to discern the good.
I want to suggest that any steps that are taken by government to meet the challenges posed by this report should start by identifying these uniting factors and our common cause as humanity with the care of the planet largely in our hands. Better surely to start where we agree than to try to make us compromise on our differences.
§ 12.21 p.m.
§ Lord Stone of Blackheath
My Lords, I found the report to be extremely readable, timely, focused and pragmatic. However, as we have already heard, even the title demonstrates a separation that is damaging; namely, the separation of "science" and "society", a theme upon which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln has just expanded. In my contribution I wish to illustrate how, by describing certain personal experiences, when science is included within society, it can be beneficial both to science and society. I shall cite examples from business and from aesthetics to show how science can be a tool for peace and for democracy—which I realise may be a little ambitious to complete in 10 minutes, but I shall try to achieve it.
In business over a period of 30 years, I found that I had a knack of encouraging diverse people to work together. That may have been because I do not have many talents of my own, so perhaps this work acted as a substitute. My job was to create £8 billion-worth of goods to produce and distribute for 50 million customers in 32 different countries. The main creative force for this work comprised two groups of people: scientists in their applied form, as technologists; and artists in their applied form, as designers.
Unfortunately, technologists often believe that designers are airy-fairy, wet and vague, while designers believe that technologists are dull, boring and aggressive. Getting them to work together was extremely difficult. When eventually they did come to appreciate each other's talents and worked together, 426 the creativity, joy and quality of the products they produced and the profits they generated for their company were enormous.
If applied scientists and applied artists find it difficult to work together in technology and design, then how much more difficult is this when we consider pure, fine art and pure, theoretical science'' Only a week ago I attended a concert performed by a fantastic orchestra called Sinfonia 21. The performers have deliberately chosen to work in Imperial College. They are sited in the middle of our metropolis so that they can work with the Royal College of Art, the Science Museum and technologists at Imperial College in order to examine the confluence between art and science. They have received funding to create a website. Talented young scientists and artists can access the website to create new instruments, listen to them and then compose on those futuristic designs. While there, I met Michael Portillo, who is involved with the orchestra, in particular with its outreach programme. That demonstrates how science can bring together people of diverse opinions.
On a more serious note, it is often held that science is a tool for war rather than for peace. On the other hand, a few months ago the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury introduced a debate which suggested that religion was a force for order and a tool for preventing disorder in the world. In that debate, a number of noble Lords disagreed somewhat and stated in terms that, "It depends on how it is used". In the same manner, depending on how it is used, science is a tool either for war or for peace. I recall that my noble friend Lord Sieff of Brimpton, a guide and mentor to me for 30 years, said that science, art and commerce ignore international boundaries, cross borders and bring together people in understanding and peace.
When he, along with his family and many other people, were working to create the state of Israel in the first part of the last century, they were concerned that science should be inculcated within that society. To that end, they created such institutions as the Weizmann Institute, bringing in scientists from all over the world. That institute now collaborates with 25 different countries. They created also the Volcani Institute to apply science to agricultural practices; the Schenkar College of Textile Technology and Design put scientists with designers, while the Teknion institute brings together scientists and engineers. All of those institutions in Israel work in collaboration with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco to try to cross borders and make peace.
I should like to mention democracy and science. The report states that people feel they are being by-passed on critical issues, not only in the development of science but also in government, as well as on crucial issues concerning their own personal health. They feel excluded from the debate. A small organisation called Dipex, based in Oxford, works with medical professors, clinical pharmacologists and people from the film and media world. It is putting together a series of interviews with people suffering from life-threatening diseases. Others diagnosed with similar illnesses may now access the Web and listen to fellow 427 sufferers discuss the very real and personal issues which cause them concern. It gives them the power to be able to approach their own doctors from a more realistic basis. Projects of this kind help democracy.
If science and art need to work together harmoniously in so many different fields, why do we separate them into two opposing cultures in children's minds so early in their education, something about which C.P. Snow forewarned us many years ago? I had the honour and pleasure of serving with a group of unbelievably talented scientists, artists and educationists on the National Advisory Committee for Creativity and Culture in Education. It reported to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith. The committee members considered the problem of how to build on creativity in literacy and numeracy in education. The report concluded that,education needs to recognise equally the value of the Arts and Sciences in education … and that collaborative projects involving both would serve to develop the innovation and creativity in all of our children".The actions required to achieve this are being looked at thoroughly.
Another project designed to highlight science for young people is to be introduced later this year. I know that my noble friend Lord Puttnam would have liked to speak on this, but he is away in Berlin today. As the chairman of NESTA, he is creating "Science Year" which aims to alter permanently the general attitude towards science, in particular among young people. The hope is that a culture will be created which is more generally technical and scientific in aspiration and content, but which also demonstrates how science exists within and in society. The "year" is due to begin in September. Another bonus of this project is that it will bring together the DfEE, the DTI and the DCMS.
The Science and Technology Committee report describes a serious, potentially destructive and divisive trend within our society that must be addressed urgently in the way suggested. Society has a malicious tendency to vilify a group of people, in particular when it is possible to identify some from within that group who have used abusively their special powers. Where a definable group of people are the holders of huge, powerful and complex concepts, when those that hold them are difficult to understand, when they use a separate language and sometimes do not mix well, they can be frightening to those on the outside. Fear turns to prejudice and that prejudice can lead to persecution; even in these enlightened times this may be so. Transparency, truth and greater contact can bring about better understanding, allay fears and engender respect.
This report, along with the work of Sinfonia 21 at Imperial College, Dipex in Oxford and the Weizmann Institute in Israel, along with the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, about which my noble friend Lord Bragg will speak later in the debate, and other enlightened bodies, must be supported by business and individuals, by charitable donations and trusts and by 428 government to ensure that science and scientists are included in society and not ostracised. We shall then all benefit from the work of science and its findings, as well as appreciate its aesthetic wonders.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, we are at the start of a new millennium which, like the century past, will be dominated by scientific and technological discovery and change. Who in 1900 could have imagined the modern home? Domestic drudgery ruled then, but the applications of electricity have almost eliminated it. Refrigerators, telephones, radio, television and vacuum cleaners are almost universal and people do not worry about using them.
The vast majority of people travel on holiday reasonably happily by air. If not, wide ownership of the motor car gives them the freedom to travel the UK and the rest of Europe. There are risks involved, as we all know, but we accept them.
In hospitals, people queue for knee and hip operations that they would not have contemplated 20 years ago when the outcome was far more uncertain. Hospitals could not run successfully without the inventions and discoveries of engineering, medicine and science working together, as the previous speaker said. Replacement joints, ultra sound, X-rays, incubators to save the lives of premature babies, kidney machines, aids for the handicapped; the list is endless.
Always with new developments, a few people have the courage to experiment and to improve the new inventions. Later, as people hear of their success, they gather confidence and take their use for granted and want to benefit from them. If we, as a country and internationally, are to progress in caring for people's health and in wealth creation to improve people's quality of life and to protect the environment, we need to continue those developments and to benefit from inventions as yet unimaginable. The man on the moon in the last century; where in the next one?
That means a proper dialogue between scientists, engineers and technologists and the public in all its diversity. Neither side can afford to hide its head in the sand, ostrich like, but both must realise that dialogue has difficulties and will involve give and take and learning from discussion on both sides. I hope therefore that our report will help that dialogue.
We were very grateful to all our witnesses, who posed the problems but in general wanted to find solutions for the future. We are grateful also to our chairman, our Clerk and our advisers. We are all very glad to see our chairman back in his place today.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, the committee was aware of the rising tide of public mistrust of "official" science and its high profile controversies—BSE, GM foods, cloning. The committee had just studied Management of Nuclear Waste in which we found that the nuclear industry and the Government 429 had lost the confidence of the public in their commitment to burial of nuclear waste in a deep repository. Yet, overwhelmingly, that was the preferred choice of knowledgeable scientists worldwide. We must never forget that that waste is there and has to be dealt with; it will not just go away. Therefore, a major section of our nuclear waste report was devoted to the issue of public acceptability, which we felt would take 20 years of step-by-step consultation.
Evidence convinced us that there is a "crisis of trust" on many fronts where science is advancing at an accelerating pace, far ahead of public awareness, let alone assent. Yes, the public are aware of the benefits of technology and often take them for granted in the contribution that they make to the quality of life; but, as several noble Lords have said, they are at the same time fearful of some of the new developments, and that can lead to active hostility. I must emphasise, as your Lordships might expect, that science includes engineering and technology.
The British public are very varied: gender, age, politics and lifestyle all make a difference to people's values. Science is not alone in facing public scepticism; all authority is questioned and many issues seem out of focus to the general public. As several noble Lords said, media hype then confuses people further. Confusion can arise between attitudes to the science itself and attitudes to the ethics, values and morals that lie behind the science and its applications.
We looked at the present state of the activities and institutions aimed at improving the public understanding of science. We are in no doubt that much good work is being done. The science White Paper, Realising our Potential, published in 1993, stated:The understanding and application of science are fundamental to the fortunes of modern nations … Science and engineering also make a most important contribution to improved public services and the quality of life",as I emphasised earlier.
The activities of COPUS, set up by the Royal Society, Royal Institution and British Association, have expanded since 1985. We identified a considerable improvement in the attitude of many scientists towards "outreach" activities, which have grown in type and number—Science Week by the British Association, lectures, prizes, grants and much more. In fact, the British Association and the Royal Institution are exploring many new ways of bringing science to the public interest.
We concluded that outreach needs a different approach—not so much the public understanding of science as science understanding the public. Communication must become more two way, which these two organisations and the Royal Society are definitely trying to do, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin said. We believe that we need to get away from a "top down" one-way process of getting people to understand better what scientists and engineers are up to, towards a real dialogue with the public.
Our witnesses told us that today's public expect,not only to know what is going on, but to be consulted430 Science and its applications are,moving out of the laboratory and into the community".The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution drew our attention to local consultation carried out by Hampshire County Council over an "energy from waste" incinerator, which, in the first instance, had met a great deal of local opposition. The county council initially dismissed this as "NIMBYism" but discovered it was a more complex matter. It initiated an elaborate two-year consultation and stated right from the start that doing nothing was not an option. The problem would not go away and so it was not a question of merely accepting or rejecting an outcome. The elaborate consultation loci to an acceptable planning decision. The key to its success was that the county council,identified accurately the issues of concern to the public".This kind of patient dialogue must also inform government policy-making. We said:We commend the Government and the scientific community for the limited experimental efforts which have already been made. We recommend however that direct dialogue with the public should move from being an optional add-on to science-based policy-making and to the activities of research organisations and learned institutions, and should become a normal and integral part of the process".But we do sound one very important caveat: giving the public a right to be informed and consulted does not give it a veto on scientific inquiry. This is how we put it:Some of the greatest advances of science have been made in the face of public hostility … Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin provide the two most outstanding examples from the past. To prohibit science from progressing without express public support in advance would be retrograde and repressive".This poses a particular challenge for the research councils. We say clearly:In our view, it would be wholly inappropriate for lay members of the public to judge the scientific merit of particular grant proposals. This must continue to be done by peer review. To expect lay people to participate in this particular aspect of the work of the Research Councils would, in the case of most grant proposals, be asking the impossible; and it would risk imposing a general chill on scientific freedom in the way which we deprecate".We commend the research councils, however, for their efforts to involve stakeholders and the public in the wider task of setting the priorities against which particular grants are made.
Then we moved to the volume of evidence about the media and from the media, referred to by a number of noble Lords. Many in science blame the media for their woes. On the other hand, journalists complain that it is difficult to get information quickly from UK scientists and engineers. Someone said it was quicker to telephone the US.
There is a contrast between specialist science editors and journalists, and news desks, political desks and current affairs broadcasting. On the whole, the former are responsible and do their best to get their stories right. But they are journalists, and stories and space are vital to them and are competed for. Most of the perceived problems with the press arise when science 431 stories are handled by others—for example, by subeditors and those on news desks, who will go for the hyped-up headline to gain attention. I refer to the subeditor who does not understand the story and alters it to give it "spin", and to the editor whose paper, particularly if it is a tabloid, goes into campaigning mode, and where the science is subordinated to the campaign. We went into this matter in some depth in regard to the furore over GM foods when the reporting moved right out of the science editors' hands. Despite that, our conclusion is that in a democratic society where, mercifully, we have a free press, scientists must learn to take the rough with the smooth like everyone else.
While we were deliberating, the Royal Society published two valuable sets of proposals. The first was Guidelines for editors, emphasising the need for accuracy; credibility; balance; uncertainty; legitimacy; advice; and responsibility. The second was the society's Guidance to scientists, also mentioned in our report. It consists of 14 concise paragraphs of advice for scientists dealing with the media, which seemed to us to be very sensible. I look forward, together with all other Members of this House, to receiving a copy of the new guidelines mentioned by my noble friend Lord Jenkin.
Of course, scientists need training in handling the media. There are also bodies which can help to mediate—and we specially commend the British Association's AlphaGalileo Internet site, providing resources for journalists interested in research around Europe. But our message is clear. In a free society with a free press, scientists cannot look for special protection from the media. Scientists must become better at handling the media.
Perhaps I may refer at this point to a subject that is especially important to me. Not surprisingly, it is the importance of special initiatives for women. In the past, as we state in the report, girls and women were often excluded from good science teaching, which can spread over to present primary school teachers, the majority of whom are women. They can lack confidence to put the subject over in an exciting way and would benefit from good in-service training.
We visited Copenhagen, and heard the same story there. We met members of the Council for Science and Technology whose excellent reports have since been published and emphasised the vital need for good in-service training of teachers and greater resources for science and technology if those subjects are to be put over well in schools and if we are to set knowledgeable attitudes among young people for their adult lives. We also emphasised the need for practical experiments in schools. The committee has recently met again with the Council for Science and Technology. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, mentioned, I hope that we shall be reporting with further advice for action soon, for girls as well as boys.
Perhaps I may quote a section from the report. It states, at paragraph 3.53: 432Improving women's understanding will have a disproportionate effect in putting the subject across to the general public. Women may already share public anxieties in areas such as the environment and family life more deeply than men; and they are usually the purchasers of food and household equipment, so will give a clearer picture than men of what that market will stand…It is therefore worthwhile persevering in the general field of adult education to interest and inform women in science and technology".I particularly welcome the COPUS work with the Women's Institute which has spread across the country in a most exciting way.
Mothers and grandmothers—and I am a granny six times!—need to be knowledgeable about using domestic apparatus safely, and also to be confident in encouraging their daughters and granddaughters to embrace the benefits of technology and to enter careers in those subjects. They are scarce skills leading to good careers.
I must declare an interest as a patron of the WISE campaign, whose aim is to encourage women into science and engineering. The Government, in their response to the report, are encouraging in their welcome for those initiatives and others. However, if they are to develop successfully they, too, need financial resources both from government and from industry, which is very difficult to achieve these days.
It is clear from the report that we need to alter radically the dialogue between scientists and engineers and the public. We need to heed people's values and ethics and not allow scientific progress to get too far ahead of the public understanding of the benefits that will result for many people. That will need to be communicated carefully and interestingly to the media—once again involving listening as well as speaking on both sides. However, science must learn to live with a free press and to be subject to the hurly-burly of debate—just as our report must. We hope that the report will make a positive and constructive contribution to that debate.
§ 12.47 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I had the privilege of serving on the committee with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. I am delighted to see the noble Lord back in this House. He is obviously making up for lost time—I see that he is speaking in both of today's debates.
I am especially pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Platt. She made reference to WISE. The House will know that she played an important role in establishing that institution, and it has been very successful thanks to the large degree of energy that she has put into it.
This report is slightly different from the usual run of reports from the Science and Technology Select Committee. It is not really about natural science; it is about a particular branch of social science—relationships. It is about the relationship between science, technology and engineering, on the one hand, and the public on the other.
We originally thought that this study was to be about the "public understanding of science". However, once we understood that we were dealing 433 with relationships, we became unhappy with the phrase. We became aware of its rather condescending overtones. Indeed, we realised that this phrase was part of the problem. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, we can no longer assume that if the public know more about how science works they will be more accepting of it.
Therefore, we began to refer to our work as dealing with "science and society", because that more accurately describes a sharing relationship between equals. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, pointed out that the phrase has been picked up by many commentators, writers and reporters and that it is now in fairly common use. On this occasion, your Lordships have coined a phrase that has quickly been taken up.
The noble Baroness, Lady Platt, pointed out that many of us who are interested in science and technology had felt for some time that the relationship between science and society is not as good as it should be. The crisis over BSE, GM foods and increasing complaints about doctors convinced us that this was not just a few cracks appearing; the relationship itself was breaking down, for all the reasons that human relationships break down—distrust, half-truths, evasions and blaming others. The report crystallised those fears and anxieties.
Perhaps those fears and anxieties existed partly because the relationship between science and society was a maturing relationship. It was past the first flush of youth, where society looked at science adoringly and assumed that it would always have the right answer. Science, too, was realising that it could no longer take the unquestioning adoration of the public for granted. It was entering into what I might call a "middle-aged relationship"—one where the partners were becoming more questioning and more demanding. They needed to talk to each other, but they were not sure how. Overhanging all of this was an uneasy feeling about money, with society feeling that perhaps science was not being completely honest and open over where the money was coming from and where it was going to.
Your Lordships' committee thought about how science and society could cope with the realities of this rather more middle-aged relationship. Our main recommendation was that they should just talk to each other more. We laid out ways in which this might be done—for example, by public consultation, conferences and meetings, education, dialogue through the media, on the Internet, through panels, focus groups, science centres, science events and codes of practice. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, told us about the media code of practice.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the response has been nothing short of extraordinary. Most of these avenues have been opened up. There is to be an impressive new centre for science and society 434 in Queensway, about which the noble Lord told us. The Royal Institution is setting up a media science centre, so as to provide—
§ Lord Jenkin of Roding
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I believe that his geography is a little wrong. The location for the new centre is Queensgate in South Kensington.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. It is, indeed, Queensgate.
The Royal Institution is setting up a science media centre to provide, as it says in its literature,a focal point from which scientists explain the nature of their work, discuss its consequences and engage in public discussion over the benefits and risks".Of course, the British Association already plays an important role because it embraces both the social sciences and the natural sciences. But it is expanding its activities to arrange events for young people from the age of five and upwards. Its National Science Week last year involved 900 organisations across the country; and it will be even bigger this year.
As my noble friend Lord Stone told us, we are to have a Science Year beginning in September 2001, which will involve the DfEE, NESTA and other organisations, including the British Association. The Alpha Galileo website is being expanded to help the media all over Europe become better informed and more aware of science and scientific matters. There will be a database where journalists and scientists can communicate directly.
New science centres for engaging the public are opening up all the time. One of the most impressive I have seen is at Bristol. Much of this information is brought together in the expanding journal Science and Public Affairs. The Government, the science museums, science centres, the research councils and the ForeSight teams have all picked up the importance of this dialogue, as has the ESRC and all the other institutions about which the noble Lord, Lord Jen kin, spoke. Indeed, one must begin to wonder whether, with so many organisations involved in communicating science, there is a risk of duplication of effort and an inefficient use of resources. Originally COPUS had this very task of co-ordination, but somehow it seems to have been left behind. However, all this activity must lead to greater trust between science and society.
We argued in our report that this dialogue, with its openness and transparency, should also lead to a greater acceptance of risk by the public. We pointed out that it is concealing the risk that gives offence. Dialogue may lead to more doubts and questions. It may lead to unbalanced and distorted reports in the media. But it is right to articulate these risks and to answer them. That is important because we seem to live in an increasingly more risk-averse society, which is leading people to demand an impossible level of protection. Indeed, without this dialogue we run the risk of over-reacting to that demand. I agree that a 435 clever lawyer can make inactivity look like culpability. But banning beef on the bone and the Dangerous Dogs Act both proved to be unworkable.
The real point is that, if the public are engaged in dialogue, there is no need for Ministers or agencies to hide. The Government and agencies are there to make a difference, not to hide behind scientists, as they appeared to do during the early stages of the BSE saga. Only yesterday—for the first time and after all these activities—during the debate on the Philips report in another place, did four former Ministers show any regret or understanding of the damage that they had done to public confidence in science. It is a pity that it took so long.
Your Lordships' committee made several visits abroad during our considerations. The thing that struck me most about our visit to the United States was the relaxed attitude towards GM foods, not because the public underestimate the risks but because of the confidence and trust that they have in the system of regulation and the independence of the Food and Drug Administration. That is why we recommended that the new Food Standards Agency should cultivate a culture of direct, open and timely dialogue with the public. I very much welcome the announcement by the Chairman of the FSA that the agency will consult and set high standards for openness; and that he is determined to stick to them. I particularly welcome the fact that the agency is trying to reach out and involve consumers in policy making. This must lead to greater trust.
It became perfectly obvious during our work that if the public are in sympathy with the end purpose of the science, particularly if it will improve their health or the health of their children, they are perfectly willing to accept the risks. This was confirmed in the authoritative joint report by the Office of Science and Technology and the Wellcome Trust on Science and the Public, which was published in October last year, some nine months after our report was published.
According to that report, most people supported science because they could see the benefits accruing for themselves, their families and their fellow citizens from the achievements of science in health, in leisure and in well-being. The report also identified concerns about the ability of society to control science through the government. Concerns were expressed about what was going on in secret. The report concluded that those concerns can best be dealt with by communicating in an open and timely manner—precisely as we did.
A great deal of work went into our report. But we would have less to show for it without the skill of our Clerk, Andrew Makower, ably assisted by Adam Heathfield. Because this report dealt with social attitudes, I also thought that he and his colleagues showed much discretion in dealing with them. That was not an easy thing to do. We were wonderfully supported by our special advisers. It was thanks to them that we realised how far the relationship had deteriorated. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, our chairman, kept our noses to the grindstone and led us 436 efficiently and thoughtfully. I am most grateful to my colleagues on the sub-committee for being such good companions.
In their response to your Lordships' report, the Government have accepted virtually all the recommendations. I cannot remember a previous occasion when your Lordships' recommendations have been so enthusiastically received. Perhaps this is because the problems are not unfamiliar. I have characterised them as a relationship moving from the first flush of youth to middle age. This lies within the experience and knowledge of most of us and so do the solutions, those common-sense solutions we bring to dealing with everyday problems in our lives. We know that they work. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln spoke of our good sense, and he is right.
Perhaps that is why our practical and simple recommendations have been taken up so enthusiastically by the scientific community and by the Government, even in the face of the bewildering complexity and pace of modern scientific advance.
§ 1 p.m.
§ Baroness Greengross
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue and to his committee for producing such a valuable report with highly commendable conclusions and recommendations. For me, and I am sure for many others, it was also a great learning opportunity. Like many other Members of your Lordships' House, I spoke in the debate on stem cell research and have been involved in some work on the social and ethical implications of this research. I expressed my support for appropriate and controlled research because, like many of us, I recognise the importance of scientific research to improve the human condition.
I rise to make a few comments on one area of science; namely, the new phenomenon of longevity which is a feature of our society. The demographic revolution is largely due to scientific successes. About three years ago I established an initiative called the Debate of the Age. It was designed to raise awareness among the general public and within the public policy sector, including academia, of the implications of our nation's changing demographic pattern. We organised about 1,500 debates across the whole of the nation. I think that it was successful as there is now a better understanding among the general public of at least two matters. First, we have many older people already, one in four of our voters—a fact which, somewhat belatedly, all of the political parties have woken up to in time for the coming general election. Secondly, there will be a massive increase in the number of older people in future, given increasing longevity due to scientific and medical endeavour. In some age groups there will be many more people. The oft-quoted figures of about 5,000 centenarians now and almost 40,000 within a generation say it all.
That demographic shift has enormous implications for our society and for our scientists, our futurologists and our policy makers. I was pleased when the DTI 437 established the Foresight Panel on Ageing and took forward some of the policy work of the Debate of the Age at its conclusion in December 1999. As the Minister knows, I have tabled an Unstarred Question to draw attention to the good work achieved by the Foresight Panel on Ageing which reported its findings in December 2000. I do not want to rehearse my speech on that in case my debate is chosen, which I hope that it will be.
I was also heartened that the research councils got involved, through an Office of Science and Technology initiative, EQUAL, to extend quality of life. This has run since 1995 but with limited success, as is clear from the recent report of the Science and Technology Committee in another place. But the aim of EQUAL was important, to conduct and support research into ensuring that longer lives can be healthier and worth living. This is one example of the inextricable link between science and wider society and must affect the priorities for medical and many other areas of scientific research in the coming years.
The challenge to the scientific community still stands. The implications of longevity remain under-researched and under-resourced, yet such work is vital. I hope that the lesson of the DTI's EQUAL initiative is not lost on our scientific community for there is much valued work that can be done; it just needs better coordination and planning. As the Lords' Select Committee report recommends, we must involve the public more effectively.
In longevity research I must declare an interest as chair of the UK International Longevity Centre, a charity set up to promote research and debate among, primarily, academics, including scientists and policy makers, and in many other fields. One of our studies, for example, is looking at four major world cities—London, New York, Tokyo and Paris—to see how they will have to adjust to their changing demography. I also hope to set up a group of interested parliamentarians to add further profile to the issue.
But we need to go far wider. The importance of scientific research and science is not just about scientists doing the work. As the Select Committee report makes clear, it impinges on all aspects of our society, from schools to the media. I support efforts to improve understanding of what science is all about. Being a non-scientist, I would welcome greater clarity and simplicity as to what the research is trying to achieve and why. That way we shall keep with us our fellow non-scientific citizens and avoid the kind of hysteria we have seen over, as has been mentioned, GM foods or the understandable mistrust created by the BSE scandal.
I make a plea for more scientists to be appointed with a specific brief to make science more accessible and understandable to the public. I take this opportunity of acknowledging the magnificent work of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, in this respect. Schools, as he said, are vital in this respect. Some of the best work that Debate of the Age did was in schools. Young people are our future. Many of today's children are likely to live to be 100 and, indeed, far older, and 438 need to adjust their life course to that expectation. The old life course (of the first 20 to 25 years spent in growing up and being educated, followed by 25 to 30 years of working, with a short period of retirement) will change dramatically. It must, if people live to be 100 and more.
Society must adjust if only because economic reality forces it to. In turn, this will influence the kind of research and development that our scientific community will need to undertake. So science has a key role to play—indeed, it has already had a key role to play—in this age shift in our society. I welcome warmly the Select Committee's report and the Government's positive response to its wider recommendations to improve the understanding of science. I particularly look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, whom I first met many years ago when we began work together in the inner London juvenile court system.
§ 1.8 p.m.
§ Lord Waldegrave of North Hill
My Lords, it is rather intimidating to be, as I understand it, a little lower down the speakers' list than usual and to have heard so many noble Lords make such kind remarks about my participation in this debate. I feel almost that I should sit down at once so as not to disappoint their expectations.
It is a great privilege for me to have the opportunity of making my maiden speech in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding under whom I served and from whom I learned a great deal as a junior Minister and whose chairmanship of the Select Committee I have watched from a distance and admired greatly. It is also my pleasure to be speaking on the subject of science and technology in this House which is without question the principal contributor to this subject in our Parliament and has been over the years. I well remember appearing as a Minister before the Select Committee of which my noble friend is now the chairman. I forget who was the chairman at the time. It may have been my noble friend and kinsman Lord Selborne. Appearing before that Select Committee as a Minister reminded me of nothing so much as appearing at an entrance interview at Oxford or something of that kind. It was a terrifying experience. Members of the Committee listened to what one said, commented on it, listened to what each other said, and behaved in ways unknown in Select Committees of another place.
I declare one or two interests. I work for an investment bank, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. Although the part for which I work is not directly involved in advising or investing in biotechnology or other technology companies, other parts of the group do. I am a non-executive director of Finsbury Life Sciences Investment Trust plc which invests in quoted and unquoted biotechnology companies. In that sense, perhaps I am in the same boat—I am sorry to say in a very much smaller way—as the Minister. It always seemed to me rather odd that he was criticised for having invested some money in science companies and 439 that that was thought to preclude him from being a proper Minister for Science. It is as though the Minister for the Arts was discovered buying a theatre ticket and it was, therefore, thought wrong that he should proceed to be a Minister in matters about which he knew.
I am proud of the White Paper to which my name was attached. Many contributed to it. I was grateful for the kind words said about it in the Select Committee's report; it was described as seminal. I am also proud of the fact that in the Government's White Paper many of the themes we tried to carry forward then have been built upon and developed. Of all the subjects in government, science policy should be among those where partisan battles are least relevant. The timescales are longer and the issues are difficult to decide in terms of the normal left or right spectrum.
I wish to say, first, that I read the Select Committee report with immense pleasure. It was not only well written; it also caught brilliantly the mood and carried forward important themes which run back in the history of science policy but need addressing at this particular time—more than perhaps for many years. The fact that the report has already been so influential tells its own story.
I wish to make three short points: a bureaucratic one; a financial and organisational one; and another as regards the role of government. I hope that my first comment is not too controversial for a maiden speech. The government in which I served made one mistake in the area of science which I regretted. That mistake, which has not yet been corrected by the successor Government, although I live in hope, was to remove the Office of Science and Technology from the Cabinet Office and attach it to the Department of Trade and Industry and not to put the Minister in the Cabinet—I hope that I do not appear to be trying to butter up the Minister too much—which is a matter that could be corrected easily.
It is good that the Office of Science and Technology should not be seen to be attached to one department only: that is, as if to signal that wealth creation, important and vital though it is to our future prosperity, is the principal purpose of science and technology. That is not so. One might as well attach the office to the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture or almost anywhere except perhaps the Foreign Office. But the symbolism—it was a little more than symbolism—of having the new office at the centre with direct access to the Prime Minister when needed was important. I regretted the change then; and I hope that the Government may consider re-placing it there again. That goes to one of the themes of the Select Committee's report because it symbolises the fact that science and technology are an integral part not only of all government policymaking but of society more widely.
Secondly, I refer to another mistake. I apologise for again being controversial. It is a mistake in which all parties have shared and in which I have played a part. It runs back perhaps beyond the last Conservative government to the end of the government before—like 440 so many things. It is the drive, admirable, explicable and justifiable in many fields, for accountability leading to centralisation. I apply this theme to the place of science within universities. When I was a very junior Minister I was sent by the then Secretary of State, Sir Keith Joseph, to America to think about science policy and university policy. I went to Caltech where I met the great scientist, Professor Gell-Man, who subsequently became a friend of mine. I gave my spiel about how wonderful our universities were and so on. He was a little sceptical and said that in his visits to Cambridge people seemed mostly to be rowing or to be engaged in other pastimes of that kind. "However", he said, "you have one inestimable advantage over us. You have no pressure on your people. You give them the money and you let them get on with it over time. We have to make them publish three times a term. They all have to say what they are doing. No one is secure".
We have moved decisively in that direction because of the natural and understandable pull of democracy asking, "What are these people up to? Are we getting value for money?" After the war for example, the medical research council of the day was able to give money on a more or less 20-year programme—a programme which ended in the Crick and Watson discoveries. They were not called to account every five minutes. They were not graded every 10 minutes. They got the best people and let them get on with it.
I do not say that we can take the risk of going right back to the old days. But I hope that we may consider beginning to lean against the wind. The degree of accountability that we now have means that the decision taking is becoming too centralised in the criteria laid down. We are putting too much pressure on people doing true blue skies research. We are not taking enough risks. I refer to blue skies research rather than applied research and technology. We are not looking enough to the underlying seed beds which may need investment for long periods before any results are seen. Jointly with the Wellcome Trust, the Government have begun to put that right in some respects. I hope that more can be done in that direction.
My final point overlaps my second point to some extent. I raise one caveat which was mentioned also by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt. It is all very well to say that we must persuade everyone in a great, warm consensus to move forward but it will never be quite like that in real life. My great guru, a great scientist and environmentalist, Professor James Lovelock, wrote last year:No matter how hard we try to make science popular we will not wholly succeed: it is not merely strange and unnatural".Lewis Wolpert, in an excellent book on the same point, wrote that,it can never be other than provisional … the public needs certainty".That "provisionality" of science often brings it into fundamental conflict with people's natural desire for certainty and warmth—in certain circumstances, faith. It will always mean that science will be from time to time in conflict. The noble Baroness gave two good 441 examples: Galileo and Darwin One thinks of Newton. He was not a nice man: secretive, difficult and horrible to the people working in the same field. How would Newton have reacted to a focus group? Not at all well, I fear. Yet he was arguably the greatest scientist our species have ever produced.
Science will not always perform according to consensus. If we democratise science in the wrong sense—there is a right sense in which we have to keep the support of democracy for the process of science—but in giving (in the current fashion) stakeholders a say over what is done, we shall get ourselves into a muddle. In the blue skies basic research we cannot say what the result of the science will be. We cannot say with certainty that something should be allowed because it will result in health gains. Rutherford thought that there were no practical consequences to the splitting of the atom. The people who did the Michaelson-Morley experiment thought that they had proved the existence of the ether. Imagine Paul Dirac having to explain to stakeholders what he was doing and why one of his equations was aesthetically more satisfying than another. That is not practical. The people doing the work out of which the future comes have to be protected within institutions such as universities and research institutes, which need to be given a little more freedom than at present. Sometimes the scientists have to be protected from stakeholders.
All governments that are activist in trying to do things—including the one of which I was a member—find it difficult to allow things to happen that are not under their control and to have the self-denying ordinance of deciding not to control certain things. That goes back to my point about over-accountability. However, sometimes, the government have an essential role that no one else can carry out. The underlying support of blue skies basic research is one such task, because no market will ever support that. Another is the protection of scientists when zealots of one kind or another threaten them. That problem is more acute today than it has been for many years. I know that the Government are doing their best, but if they insist—rightly—that no drugs should be put on the market before they have been tested on animals, it is their moral duty to ensure that those who undertake such legal activities can do so safely. If the market fails—and it might, because companies may withdraw from marginal investment decisions—there could never be a better case for nationalisation. The Government would have to step into the breach and undertake the work themselves.
I hope that the situation does not come to that. I am in no way criticising the sensible things that the Government have said and have tried to do. They have a role as the ultimate guarantor of the freedom of the scientist to fulfil obligations that the Government have laid on industry. That may need further action.
The Select Committee report carries forward the battle on many fronts. My point is a small proviso and certainly not a criticism. The necessary work of the integration of science and society to which the report has contributed so much should not blind us to the fact that sometimes we will have to stick in our heels and 442 say, "Well, even though we have not persuaded you for now, this is right and it must be done". I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a debate on such a good report.
§ 1.23 p.m.
§ Lord Bragg
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, on his characteristically incisive and witty maiden speech. I have been acquainted with him over the years and always admired his cultural range and intellectual generosity, both of which were on display in your Lordships' House this morning. His is the sort of mind that one hopes for from a fellow of All Souls. His career in another place was most distinguished, especially in the field of science. I am sure that all your Lordships join me in looking forward to his further participation in debates here in this senior assembly.
I, too, greatly welcome the debate. I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for such a comprehensive opening speech about such an excellent report. It is crucial to find ways to join science and society. At the moment, the debate is characterised too often as science versus society. To declare an interest, or rather a starting point, I speak as the president of the Science Media Centre, based in the Royal Institution in London. The centre was set up last year to provide a focal point from which scientists can explain the nature of their work and discuss its consequences with the press and the media. We have support from many other illustrious groups and institutions, including the Royal Society, whose president sits on our board. We seek no grant from the Government. Our aim is to do something very difficult, which others do in different ways: to explain clearly what is often rarefied, tentative, highly intellectual, even abstruse work that could directly affect the lives of millions. We try to bring science to those—all of us—who benefit from it, but who need to be informed and to be answered.
That brings us to the media. It is in that area that I shall offer the unschooled opinions of a non-scientist. The fascination of the debate is that we are dealing with the most profound and at the same time the most diurnal, even mundane parts of our minds, our natures and our lives. Science hints at and even gives us human possibilities once reserved for gods and goddesses. It also promises, at the most exhilarating basic level, to feed the millions who now starve, to cure the millions who are now sick and to solve what for millennia has been thought insoluble—and all by the application of the mind and the just implementation of the rewards of that mental labour. We are quite simply in an age when what were once thought of as marvels can be reached by what were once thought of as miracles. Magic has become realism, and that can be alarming.
We are also in an age when fears can be more widely, more insidiously and more effectively propagated than ever before. Some of those fears have foundations that have to be taken seriously. For example, although it is wholly right for scientists to make a clear distinction between nuclear energy and the nuclear bomb, there is no doubt that the understandable terror at the 443 potential negative consequences of the bomb has infiltrated opinion on the potential positive forces of nuclear energy, which has not helped its own case by a number of accidents and cover-ups, but which will undoubtedly be an increasingly necessary and welcome source of power in the future. Many other examples have been touched on this morning.
It could be argued that the best way through that is via education. Let the schools and universities do that work and all will be well. In the long run, that is the best path, but, as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. Meanwhile, we have the media.
Despite the understandable criticism made by several of your Lordships—with much of which I align myself—there is some very good matter in the media: television programmes such as "Horizon" and "Equinox", several of Radio 4's programmes and the quality of Roger Highfield in the Telegraph, Nigel Hawkes in The Times, Tim Radford in the Guardian and Steve Connor in the Independent. I could go on. There is great quality, underlined by the fact that we live in a period when many scientists of considerable reputation are well able and willing to produce books and programmes for a hungry general public. It would be invidious to list that roll of communicating honour, but we live in a golden time of great scientific generalisers, one of the foremost being my noble friend Lord Winston, who speaks so eloquently in our debates.
And yet, an academic of the eminence of Dr Susan Greenfield, the first woman director of the Royal Institution, and other very fine academics whose work is also generously aimed at the generality—such as Professors Peter Atkins and Steve Jones, Chris Leaver and Paul Matthews, Sir Martin Rees, Sir Robert May and others—have come together to give time and energy to the new Science Media Centre, because, despite everything, they do not think that science is getting its meaning and message across with the force and depth that it should. Like many of your Lordships, I agree with them.
It is too simplistic to say that the media is all the problem. In today's society, the burden of informing rests not with the Churches, the Government or the universities, but with the media. Scientists see—late, some of them, but better late than never, I hope—that often their own sense of being an enclosed order and their perhaps over-protective sense of the complexity of their enterprise, perhaps even—dare one say it?—once or twice their own arrogance, have not helped the cause that they serve. For their part, the media, while often the midwife to many an honest new child of science, have their own agenda, which is often that the best story is the worst story.
Here I speak carefully as someone who has benefited greatly from the efforts of scientists to reach a wider, largely ignorant public of which I am a member. However, there are still scientists who regard public inquiries as an interference and a bit of an outrage to their holy order. As the new Science Media Centre will attempt to emphasise, it is important that replies such as, "I'll find out for you over the two or three next 444 months", be given a little faster to a reporter with a deadline. Nor are scientists always sufficiently determined to clarify the scientific method for people in the media, the purpose of a control group, even the need to repeat experiments, the impossibility of proving a negative, or that scientists disagree or that new knowledge will always overlay the old. In essence, it is necessary to develop a more common understanding that science can be difficult, a concrete agreement that some science is elusive, and the certain knowledge that science can be uncertain but still be knowledge and still be news.
There is no doubt that there is a growing media interest in science. However, one must acknowledge the media's constraints—deadlines, competition, and stories that grab the attention. Over time, perhaps, there will be room for the more lengthy background pieces which everyone in your Lordships' House would welcome, when the broadsheets supplant sport with science and the redtops elbow topless models for technology.
Until that time comes, it is essential that the media have a resource which can be quick, accurate and articulate and which provides the names of those whose comment carries weight. That is what the Science Media Centre aims to do. I can think of no better service to science today than to see it represented and mediated to the public at large at its best and not in fragments, fall-out or fake storms and phoney tempests.
Of course, this issue has an economic dimension which is of crucial importance to this country. Put bluntly, if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost. The more we know, the more we can make of what we know. There is the sniff of the born-again Luddite in the air, and that could be destructive to our future as a trading country whose increasing wealth depends increasingly on its brains.
Profound questions of morality also arise, which others in your Lordships' House are more capable of analysing than am I, as exemplified by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. I plead only that that be proportionate. As we know from our own western history, dogmatic moral codes have often been the enemy not only of understanding but of the great benefits available to mankind. It is important to emphasise that scientists, as citizens, are fully responsible members of the moral community. My experience is that they take that responsibility very seriously.
This is a serious debate. Today's science is hurtling forward on a mission which has a fury about it. Those of us who are nowhere near the control centre but on the same planet need to know. If we are denied full knowledge, our fear and our ignorance could spoil or even abort the huge searches and discoveries being made. If we are given the knowledge, we can be part of a critical and, therefore, helpful community serving a democracy of the mind. I welcome and commend this report and hope that its findings take root.
§ 1.32 p.m.
§ Baroness Wilcox
My Lords, I rise, first, to congratulate my noble friend Lord Waldegrave on his elegant, informed, thoughtful and uncontroversial maiden speech. I knew him as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1992–94 and at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1994–95, frequently battering on his door on behalf of the consumer. He received us with good grace, listened and, whenever possible, acted to give us what we wanted. Therefore, I regard him as a great friend. I look forward very much to his future contributions to your Lordships' House. I believe that he will be a marvellous asset here.
I was delighted and honoured to be invited to join the Science and Technology Committee's investigation into science and society, so ably chaired and so ably described by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. We started our work just at the time when unsegregated grain—a mixture of genetically modified and unmodified grain—had been sold into the European Union.
As president of the National Federation of Consumer Groups and, for the past six years, chairman of the National Consumer Council, I felt the full impact of the fury of the British and European consumer groups when they realised that the manufacturers of thousands of products would not be able to identify and label products as being modified or not, thereby wiping out consumer choice in that area.
The floodgates opened, and all the fury which was building up against the science community—particularly government science—was released. The public reaction, expressed, encouraged and fuelled by the media, seemed out of all proportion to the nature of the complaint—labelling. However, on this occasion, that was not the environmentalists' complaint; it was the desire of the domestic consumer to have choice and adequate information on which to base that choice.
Due to the frightening side-effects of thalidomide, the possibility of contracting CJD from beef, genetically modified grain and, during the course of our inquiry, the promise of stem cell research and the moral dilemmas of cloning, the domestic consumer felt out of control of his food chain, his health and even the body parts of his dead relatives.
Here in Britain, ours is a very secret society. Our National Health Service chooses our drugs in secret. "Trust me, I'm a doctor", becomes a threat, not a promise. Our politicians soothe the public: "There is no risk; you're safe with this". Therefore, eventually the consumer completely loses trust in government science.
As we heard, our committee took that very seriously. Our scientists are the best in the world. If they are to be mistrusted, underfunded, demonised and hounded, we shall all be the poorer. We have owed our lives to them and their research, and in the future they will earn us our living. Many British jobs in the future will be dependent on our being at the cutting edge of science and technology.
446 I am fully supportive of all the recommendations in our report that we made to your Lordships' House and to the Government. At last, we have a Freedom of Information Act in this country, albeit watered down almost to the point, in some areas, of uselessness. However, it provides a starting point on which to build and campaign and on which to improve access to information, information, information. In plain English, it provides answers and explanations to the questions that the British consumer wants answered.
I believe that if scientists are to be recognised and acclaimed as they should be, they must listen to the fears and concerns that people have. They must place their knowledge within the moral and ethical concerns of the public. They must view the dialogue with the public and its representatives as being as important as publishing their findings in Nature, as finding acceptance with their peers or, occasionally, as being invited to appear on the excellent programmes of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, which go out on BBC radio, but after nine o'clock in the morning when the general public has gone to work.
Yes, the public is ignorant about science. It is ignorant about what is going on. But whose fault is that? When science shouts "Eureka", it should enable the audience to hear, see and understand the new discovery, knowledge or application. It is time that science went to "Eastenders", "Coronation Street", "The Bill", "The Archers", the Sun, Good Housekeeping and The Big Issue. Science and society—I am all for it, and I commend this report to the House.
§ 1.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, on his maiden speech. I also knew him from another side of the table. I was a member of Save British Science and, in delegation of a part of Save British Science, I pleaded with him for a better deal for British science. Indeed, I believe that we obtained that when he became the Minister for Science.
I also share his views, both on the loss of the power, in some senses, of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, once it was put firmly within the DTI and lost its independence and its representation in the Cabinet. Like the noble Lord, I believe that that was rather a shame for British science, and it would be a very good thing if it were restored to the position which it had originally under the noble Lord. Secondly, I also join him in his views about the dangers of accountability in centralisation. I believe that this House will probably return to that issue on many occasions.
I congratulate not only the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, on his maiden speech, but also the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, and his committee on what I consider to be an excellent report. It has, as the noble Lord said, already had a wide impact, and several important actions have been taken to implement it. It is quite something for the recommendations of a report by a Select Committee of this House to be implemented so quickly. The 447 Government's response contained widespread agreement with the report's recommendations. It is an excellent report.
At the centre of the report is the conundrum that was explained by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. Although the general public display more interest in developments in science, scientists have lost the confidence of the general public. Why? If we want to put our finger on the reason, the seminal point was probably the BSE crisis. As the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, made clear, other relevant issues, including nuclear waste and nuclear power, go back further. The attitudes taken by some of those who preached in this context in earlier days are also relevant.
Perhaps because I come from the stable of the social scientists I enormously welcome the report's recognition of the fact that social scientists can play a useful part in the debate—they have interesting things to say. I welcomed in particular the recognition that the phrase, "the public understanding of science", is condescending. I thought that other noble Lords might have quoted from paragraph 3.9, but they have not. It states:It is argued that the words imply a condescending assumption that any difficulties in the relationship between science and society are due entirely to ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of the public: and that, with enough public-understanding activity, the public can be brought to greater knowledge, whereupon all will be well".That is what we social scientists refer to on occasion as the "deficit model" of the public understanding of science. The assumption is that provided people are given enough information, they will understand science and there will be no problem. That is not true. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, stressed the need for an open debate and open dialogue. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, instanced the Swiss debate on genetic engineering and pointed out that a wide debate ensures greater understanding on the part of the general public and greater understanding on the part of scientists of the moral issues that are involved.
In your Lordships' House, the Select Committee is a prime example of the way in which the lay public can appear side by side with knowledgeable scientists to discuss issues. The fact that those issues are examined in depth and that all sides are analysed means that the reports are balanced and representative. Perhaps such open dialogue should be pursued more often.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, instanced the debate in this House on stem cell research. Many noble Lords look back on that debate as one of the high points of this Session. It was a brilliant debate, in which the issues were discussed equably but thoroughly and the highest decisions were covered. Such wide-ranging and open debates should take place more often.
On the other side, we must recognise the points that were made by the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley. He referred to the need to take into account the arrogance that scientists occasionally display. The report notes that in their day, Galileo and Charles Darwin were condemned by their mainstream 448 contemporaries. The report also emphasises how inappropriate were the activities of Monsanto, which tried to promote the genetic engineering of seeds. I am rather proud of the fact that the former vice-chancellor of Sussex University, Gordon Conway—I worked with him for some time—brought the relevant bodies together round the table in Washington. He banged heads together and said, "If you go on in this way, you will kill the science". Both sides must be taken into account. As the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, said, public dialogue must be not an optional add-on but an integral part of the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, said that we must be aware of the fact that scientists can never be certain. We are concerned with probabilities. The deficit approach, which seeks to fill the ground with more knowledge, does not work.
We must try to ground our young people in the methods of science. The noble Baronesses, Lady Platt and Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said that the report touches on the role of education and the science curriculum in schools. There are currently worries about the science curriculum. Although it is splendid that the national curriculum has put science in a central position, there is a danger that it is being squeezed out in junior schools by the literacy and numeracy curriculum.
There are two worries about secondary schools in this context. First, a falling proportion of those taking A-levels study science. More pupils in total take science A-levels because there are now more students, but the proportion has reduced. The report asked whether the curriculum for the traditional sciences, especially physics, was the right one. Secondly, we are aware of the need for the broad curriculum to continue for as long as possible. The changes to AS-levels in the lower sixth forms are an important step forward. We shall have to see how that system works out. I am a little sorry that we did not go the whole hog and go for an equivalent to the international baccalaureate, which would have offered a broader curriculum all of the way through the education system.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, asked whether we were becoming too risk averse. Sadly, we are seeing fewer hands-on science experiments in secondary schools, partly for health and safety reasons.
If we are to accept that science can never be certain, we must, as a population, understand the concept of probability. When I was in America—I spent four years there—I was struck, when we first got there, by the fact that weather forecasts were always given in terms of probabilities. That was a useful way to school the general public in the concepts of probability. I am glad that weather forecasting in this country is moving in that direction.
The need for an open dialogue is important, and freedom of information plays a significant part in that regard. When my colleagues search for information, they frequently use American sources because the American Freedom of Information Act, which has been in operation for a long time, enables them to obtain much information, often from UK sources. I 449 welcome the fact that we have, at long last, passed such an Act, even though it did not provide as much access to information as we had hoped. However, I am delighted that we managed to persuade the Government to accept our amendment, making open to the public the statistical and scientific information briefings for Ministers. That will be a very important part of opening up the dialogue and encouraging the public to feel a sense of security about those issues.
Other noble Lords have spoken at length about the media. I do not want to speak at any length about developments in the media. Until I read this report, I had not realised the degree to which the "Frankenstein foods" debate was contrived as part of the circulation war. Perhaps I was being rather naïve but I had not realised that; nor had I realised the degree to which the science correspondents of the two newspapers concerned had been cut out of the debate. I echo strongly the thoughts of my noble friend Lord Taverne in relation to those issues.
We have had a very good debate. This an important and seminal report. It has, rightly, already had extensive influence in opening up the debate on scientific issues and the handling of scientific decision-taking. In that respect, the Government have endorsed the majority of the recommendations in a long and thoughtful response which is so different from the response which we had only 10 days ago from the Treasury to my own Select Committee's report on the developments within the euro. I am delighted to see how thoughtfully the Government have responded here.
From these Benches, we welcome this report; we too endorse its findings; and we look forward to this new world of wider dialogue and greater understanding.
§ 1.52 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those of the three noble Lords who have spoken since the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Waldegrave. There is no way that I can add any more to what they have said so eloquently.
I join with other noble Lords who have congratulated the committee on its excellent and perceptive report which has been so well and warmly received. In particular, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Jenkin on the excellent way in which he introduced the debate today. My noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned that he is a layman. I too am a layman but a much less experienced layman than the noble Earl. I came to this report not because I wanted to but because I had to, in anticipation of my response today. I found it very easy reading. It was extremely clear. I hope that it is disseminated much more widely among the general public.
The report emphasises heavily the need for better communication by scientists, either as individuals or by scientific bodies and learned societies and by the Office of Science and Technology and the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.
450 There is yet another aspect of the lack of understanding of science by the public—even the almost superstitious fear—either because they are ill-informed or badly informed or misinformed about it. The example which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, gave of being attacked outside this House is a real example of that kind of thing. It shows us what happens to people when they really do not understand what the issues are.
In many cases, that fear is fuelled by the media, and many noble Lords have mentioned that. We only have to look at the example which so many noble Lords have given today of "Frankenstein foods". I find quite extraordinary the fear of genetically modified crops, because every morsel of food we eat these days has been genetically modified since the time 6,000 years ago when the first farmer made a hole in the ground with a stick and dropped a seed into it. Seedless grapes, nectarines, miniature tomatoes and types of potatoes are all genetically modified. Therefore, I find it absolutely amazing that the media are able to whip up public fear on one side of the issue without having any knowledge of the other side.
Of course it is right that the report draws attention to the shortcomings of the press on that issue. It is right also that the creation of new types of seeds—essential to feed the growing world population—should be carefully controlled and regulated in order to protect the environment, with the benefit of the doubt always being given to the environment.
Many modifications are really beneficial but, of course, they do not attract the press's attention. That is the problem. Only this past weekend Greenpeace has conceded that its objections to the so-called golden rice—that is, rice enriched with vitamin A—may be costing the sight of 50,000 people per month in the third world. I was pleased to see that, quite rightly, it has withdrawn its objections; but not before time.
In its report, the committee quite rightly and comprehensively, in Chapter 4, draws attention to the problems caused when scientists suppress uncertainty. That problem was also highlighted in the 1997 report of the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. But the problem is that when a scientist is asked to guarantee that there is absolutely no risk in something or other and truthfully says that there cannot be 100 per cent certainty of anything in life, then the headlines scream out something like, "Leading scientist admits that widgets are dangerous". That is the problem. Pages 34 and 35 of the report highlight the problem of communicating the uncertainty and risk. That is a very important section of the report.
What is also wrong, and certainly not helpful, is the sort of hyperbole indulged in recently by the Health Secretary of the Alder Hey Hospital report. Before it was even published, he was preconditioning the public and the media by announcing that it was the most appalling report that he had ever read.
Let there be no misunderstanding: the wanton and unnecessary stripping of bodies of organs, adults as well as children, merely to store them in hospital basements is totally unacceptable to a civilised society.
451 But as we have seen, only in the past few days, the outcry that was ignited has been a real disincentive as regards the need for the preservation of specimens to teach further generations of doctors and to help further scientific research.
It has also resulted in the drying-up of organ donations, temporarily we hope, which the Government are now desperately trying to reverse by a hastily convened conference. What has been highlighted is the need for informed consent from relatives which—all the indications are—would be given if only they knew what those donations were required for. That is another example of what is talked about in the report—the need for knowledge for the public and giving them the information they require in relation to those important matters.
The whole thrust of the report and its main theme is of creating public confidence by clear and open communication, never mind the problem that a large proportion of the public do not understand the issues. As the committee said:Once they leave school, most people get most of their information about science from the TV and the newspapers. How the media handle science is therefore very important; and many scientists feel that they do it very badly".To my mind, a most important point in the report is the observation that society's relationship with science is in a critical stage because public confidence in the scientific advice which the Government receive has been rocked by BSE, biotechnology and even IT.
It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, made a slight mistake when he referred to my honourable friend Tim Yeo making an apology for the first time. I know for certain that he has done that before and I am sure that the noble Lord overlooked that.
The report quite rightly does not aim to establish the merits of particular positions on key issues such as GM foods. Rather it has looked at the way those positions are formed to recommend how the process can be improved. That comes down to five main points. First, there is a need to create a new culture of dialogue between scientists and the public.
My noble friend Lady Platt told of the difficulties of dialogue between even two scientists and maybe between scientists and engineers. It is easy to say what should happen. It is not always easy to get that result. Secondly, there is a need for scientists to heed public values and attitudes, to which I should add well-informed values and attitudes. Thirdly, there is a need for science to take note of the current crisis of confidence that I have just mentioned. Fourthly, there is a need for all scientific advisory and decision-making bodies to adopt a transparent and open approach, which means no more arrogantly saying, "Trust us; we know best". My noble friend Lady Wilcox mentioned that. Unfortunately, some of the stories we have heard lately mean that it is not quite so easy automatically to trust one's doctor, although one would like to be able to. Fifthly, there is a need for a more constructive attitude between science, scientists and the media. That is clearly important.
452 Time does not permit me to go into those points in detail but, in summary they call for improvement in five areas. The first is the public understanding of science; the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned the importance of science in schools. I believe that the report states that there should not be such a drive for the standards in numeracy that science gets squeezed out in primary schools. I think it is important to start with children at an early age. The second area is that of frankly communicating about uncertainty and risk. The report makes good suggestions about that. The third area is engaging the public. All noble Lords have referred to that. The fourth area is dealing with science and the media, to which I shall return. The fifth area is science education in schools, which I have just mentioned.
The need for partnerships between industry, universities and the public is not a new concept simply of this Government. As a result of the 1993 White Paper on scientific engineering technology, the Technology and Foresight programme came about. A White Paper entitled Creating the Superhighways of the Future was published in 1994. The Information Society initiative was launched in 1996. Funding for science and engineering rose by 10 per cent in real terms between 1987 and 1997. I do not think that parties on either side should claim that they have done it all. In a subject such as this which is important for all mankind, it is right that every government do their very best and build on what has been done before. That is a very good thing.
The report we are debating today was published around the time that the public furore about body parts broke out, and was certainly written well before then. The committee is to be congratulated on its prescience in identifying the problem of public perception, because that is what it is all about. It says (I paraphrase), "A meaningful response requires us to go beyond event-based initiatives like consensus conferences or citizens' juries".
As I mentioned, one of the committee's key recommendations calls for direct dialogue with the public. It calls for encouraging the same attitude throughout the EC,for advisory and decision making bodies … such as the Food Standards Agency cultivating a culture of direct, timely and open dialogue with the public".It is paradoxical that the committee should mention the Food Standards Agency. We are still awaiting the publication of the terms of reference of that body and comprehensive details of its powers and duties. Perhaps at some stage the Minister might today, or at any other time, let us know when that is likely to be.
The committee also states,our call for increased … dialogue with the public is intended to secure science's licence to practise—not to restrict it".That, too, is an important phrase.
We can all support that objective, but we need not only a changed and better-informed attitude by the media; we also need more activity on behalf of the scientific community to be less secretive; to indulge in a proper public relations exercise, which I think is 453 essential; to take the public more into its confidence and to work a little more with the media. I was pleased to see that the report endorsed the Royal Society's guidelines for scientists, Working with the Media as set out on page 62 of the report. We heard from my noble friend, Lord Jenkin, to the surprise of practically every other noble Lord, that, indeed, there was another report. It was not to the surprise of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, who I think was involved with it. The Social Issues and Research Centre, in consultation with the Royal Society, came up with a different set of guidelines, which, in turn, have now been accepted by the PCC.
If we have a state of play in which scientists know that they have to be less secretive; in which they work harder on public relations; in which the public are more confident because of that; and in which the media take note of the new guidelines, perhaps everything for which the report asks will come about.
§ 2.6 p.m.
§ The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)
My Lords, first perhaps I may apologise to the House for not being in my place when the debate started. I had been informed by the Whips' Office that the debate would start at 11.30. I hope that the House will accept that my absence was due to a lack of critical approach to information from the Whips' Office rather than from any discourtesy intended to this House. After the debate I shall take up with the Whips' Office what I shall do if that ever happens again.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, on his excellent maiden speech. It was worthy of someone who, it is generally agreed by the scientific community, was the best, or at least one of the best, science ministers this country has had in recent years.
The Government are grateful to the Select Committee for the thorough study it has conducted into this important issue and for its excellent report. It has made an extremely valuable contribution to this important debate. I add my thanks to those of the rest of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for ably leading this debate.
Many of the committee's recommendations are in line with existing initiatives of the Government. The report influenced the development of policies set out in the science and innovation White Paper published last July. The report also highlights important areas that require further action, not just by the Government but by the science community as a whole. I am pleased to say that the Government and the science community are taking up the challenge with enthusiasm.
Like the authors of the report, I believe that we must move beyond the "public understanding of science" to a dialogue between scientists and the public about science. This must involve scientists understanding the public, as well as the public understanding science, and it must involve a debate about the benefits, risks and values of science as well as the science itself. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the movement which is now characterised as the public 454 understanding of science movement was in its time—and that is not long ago—an extremely progressive initiative. It has done excellent work but I, too, believe that the debate must move on. It is interesting to note that around the world the public understanding of science movement has been widely praised and much copied.
I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who was accused of assault outside the House of Commons. I thought that, in terms of the two Houses and the wider public debate, the debate on stem cells was a model of what should be taking place. There are two reasons for that. The first is the careful preparation which took place. We had not only the report from the Human Genetics Advisory Committee but also the Donaldson report which clearly set out the arguments and the science. Secondly, it was an opportunity for all the interested groups to put forward their views in the public arena. That led to an excellent debate and the right decision.
Many agencies, independent bodies, companies and individuals who work in the area of science communication have also responded positively to the report. I refer, for example, to the publication of the Social Issues Research Centre/Royal Institution guidelines on science reporting, which followed discussions on this issue between SIRC, the Press Complaints Commission, the Royal Society and others. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I heard about it only yesterday when I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham.
I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Taverne and Lord Bragg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that a key part of the issue is the role of newspapers and television. It was always one of the weaknesses of the public understanding of science movement that it believed that small meetings around the country addressed by eminent scientists could somehow correct the situation. Of course, the fact is that most people gain most of their knowledge of science after their period of education from newspapers and television. That is why this is such an important area.
I received the guidelines only yesterday and therefore have had only a cursory glance at them. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that they appear to be extremely good and to point journalists in the right directions. They recommend that journalists state any limitations or caveats about the information they give, preferably within the first few lines of a report or press release. As we heard in the stem cell debate, that is important in particular where findings which are preliminary and have not been peer reviewed differ markedly from previous findings or are based on small, unrepresentative or animal samples, or have found only a statistical correlation. We must try to get those facts into more press reporting. Clearly, the task must be to ensure that the guidelines are properly disseminated and in force.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, about the need to provide journalists faced with tight deadlines with sources of information. I welcome the setting up of the Science Media Centre. I also welcome the fact 455 that the research councils are making dialogue with the public a central part of their communication and decision-making strategies.
I turn to the issues which have been raised and shall deal first with the challenge of improved dialogue. The first step to having a fruitful and constructive dialogue with the public is to discover their views. The Office of Science and Technology had done exactly that by commissioning, with the Wellcome Trust, a major survey of public attitudes to science and technology.
That shows that, as a whole, the public believe that science brings benefit to their lives. However, they also believe that better communication between scientists and other members of the public is required. While two-thirds of people believe that scientists want to make life better for the average person, a similar proportion agree that scientists should listen more to what the ordinary people think—a view reflected clearly in the committee's report.
As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, there is some good news from the complementary survey by the Wellcome Trust, supported by the OST, of the views of scientists about public debate. Eighty-four per cent of scientists questioned believed that they had a duty to communicate the results and implications of their work to the public, and more than half of them have done so in the past year. Almost six in 10 scientists said that they would like to spend more time on public dialogue activities.
The research councils are jointly commissioning a study on how best to engage a range of different public audiences in dialogue across a spectrum of issues in scientific research. The output of the study will include advice on how the councils can best take note of, and incorporate, public views into their thinking. However, I do not agree with the idea that there should be a separate stream of funding for science communication, or that we should try to build it into the research assessment exercise. The latter is complicated enough already and to use criteria other than the excellence of research is a mistake.
However, like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, the Government are hopeful that change within COPUS will now pick up pace. I shall meet COPUS in the near future to discuss its plans and urge it to move forward as quickly as possible, particularly in the formulation of a strategy about science communication. By "strategy", I mean no more than that we should try to understand who should do what and to avoid duplication of effort.
As the committee's report notes, if people are to have a confident relationship with science it is important that there are plenty of opportunities for them to learn about recent scientific developments and to debate their value. We must develop more ways to do this, and make full use of those that already exist. Young people—the decision-makers of the future—are key participants in dialogue about science. As we announced in the science and innovation White Paper, the Government are to make 2001–02 Science Year and will launch a new Science and Engineering 456 Ambassadors Scheme to send young people working in universities and industry into schools to encourage children to take up careers in science and engineering. I agree with my noble friend Lord Stone that that is a very important initiative. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that children should learn not only science but, above all, about what is involved in scientific method. I assure the noble Baroness that the number of A-level subjects in this area taken by children is going up faster than the rate of growth elsewhere. The problem is that the situation is reversed in universities, which is a major problem.
The second challenge set out in the report is the need for greater openness and transparency in decision-making. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that the key is information, information and information. Scientists constantly tell me that they would like to have their own "soap" or to appear on television. One must be asked to do the latter. However, many scientists would love to have a "soap" about them and their working lives. I hope that one day programme-makers can be persuaded to provide it.
The public attitude survey told us that most people's views of scientists and engineers are quite positive, and failures of confidence are focused on the system, especially concerns about the Government's ability to regulate science effectively. A number of high profile issues, of which BSE is probably the most notable, have eroded public trust and confidence in the way that science is handled and regulated. The Government are committed to learning the lessons from these controversies and to improving the way in which science is used in policy making. Public trust is vital to progress and innovation. That trust is easily lost and hard to win back. We must neither dismiss people's concerns nor exaggerate them.
The Government place particular importance on the effective use of scientific advice in decision-making. We want to build public confidence in science by providing an independent and transparent system of regulation and by encouraging debate on the ethical and social issues. Last year probably the most important action taken by the Government in this area was to set up the Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. Those bodies are now up and running and will have a key role to play in consulting the public about developments in biotechnology. The Food Standards Agency has also established a rigorous culture of openness and public dialogue. I am not aware of the issue relating to the terms of reference. I shall write to the noble Baroness and place a copy in the Library. These bodies, which face a challenging task, bring together widely different views on very difficult issues, and work under public view. The Government will watch their work closely to see what lessons in public dialogue on these issues can be translated into other areas.
In July last year, alongside the science and innovation White Paper the Government published Guidelines 2000, which was a revised and strengthened 457 version of the 1997 guidelines on "The Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making" by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
Last week, the Government published their interim response to the BSE inquiry which ushers in a period of consultation. Many of the key themes in the Phillips report echo those in the committee's report on science and society, such as the way in which the Government use scientific advice, openness, and the communication of risk. Many of the lessons from Phillips are either already addressed through Guidelines 2000, outlined in the initial proposals for a code of practice for scientific advisory committees, or will be addressed when drafting the text of the code of practice for a second round of consultation in March. But the Government believe that we have a long way to go in building public trust, and we are very keen to look at new initiatives.
Perhaps I may respond to one or two of the other points made in the debate. I agree very firmly with my noble friend Lord Winston about the importance of conveying to the public the need for animal experimentation. We have tighter controls for that in this country than does any other country. We should make it clear that no animal experiment takes places without three licences and without a very careful cost/benefit analysis of its value. People should remember that the Thalidomide tragedy would never have taken place if we had had in place that same tight control on animal experimentation.
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, about the importance of the study on risk perception. As a result of that work, which is now very developed, particularly in America, there is a very clear understanding that people have a completely different view of risk where they feel it is not within their choice or control. One of the issues that most affected the debate on GM foods was the announcement that soya could come into this country and that it would be impossible to tell whether or not it was modified. People felt that they no longer had a choice. That was one of the matters that vastly heightened their sense of the risk involved. I am glad to say that the interdepartmental liaison group on risk assessment will shortly be co-ordinating an analysis of recent research on risk assessment and how people see it. That is a most important move.
I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln that truth, wonderment and morality are excellent common grounds when considering these issues. However, I would say that even in the process of discovery one can have moral issues raised, as in the case obviously of animal experimentation, and as was very clear in the question of research on stem cells. Therefore, even the process of discovery can raise moral issues.
We must avoid the idea that we can carry out a cost/benefit analysis of scientific research. The whole history of science shows that one cannot do that; that the really "break-through" discoveries come in areas where they are least expected. I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, made that point.
I also agree strongly with the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, that the lay public should not have a veto over 458 scientific discovery unless it involves moral issues such as stem cells or animal experimentation. There have been too many examples in the past where people have said either that a piece of research will have no benefit, and therefore it should not be done, or that it is somehow in conflict with current ideas and should not be done. The direction of scientific research should be firmly in the hands of scientists unless it involves issues of morality such as animal experimentation or stem cells.
I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about the importance of research on ageing from the viewpoint of society. That is particularly important in the case of problems such as Alzheimer's disease. We know that with an ageing society this will become a very much more prevalent problem unless we can find a cure.
I clearly very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, that the science Minister should be in the Cabinet. I thought that was a totally uncontroversial view and therefore very suitable for a maiden speech. However, I am not certain that there is one right place to put science within government. In this country we have tried it, first, with education, next in the Cabinet and then in the DTI. The Japanese had it in the Cabinet for very many years and have now put it in education. Practically every country moves it around every so often. I am inclined to think that there is not one right answer and that structure in this case is less important than the value one attaches to it.
I do not think that we are giving a diminishing role to basic research. As the White Paper made clear, we think that curiosity-driven research is fundamental to the excellence of the science base and that one does not get more innovation by switching funds from basic to applied research. In my view, the first job of a science Minister is to maintain the excellence of the science base.
Perhaps I may respond to the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, about the duplication of effort in the communication of science. The Government agree that we must make better use of the resources available in this area. That is why I asked the OST to review science communication activity in the UK. The results of that work carried out with the Wellcome Trust were published last October in the report Science and the Public and I hope will lead to greater co-ordination in the future.
Science is threaded through every aspect of our lives. If we are to achieve the full benefits of new scientific advances, we need citizens who have a confident relationship with science. The Government are determined to restore trust and confidence by listening to the opinions, concerns and priorities of the public, by being open and transparent about the way scientific decisions are taken, and by involving people in social and ethical decision-making. The report gave us considerable help in how to achieve those objectives. I thank the committee for challenging us to do better and helping us to move forward.
§ 2.27 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkin of Roding
My Lords, at this hour on a Friday afternoon when there is another important debate to follow, I am sure the House will understand that I must be extremely brief. I want to make only three points.
I should like to say a warm thank you to those who extended a personal welcome to me. I reacted to the phrase of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who referred to the contribution of science to longevity. That is why I am able to be with the House today.
I am grateful to all those who took part in the debate. It has been a good debate and will repay proper study. I join all those who offered congratulations to my noble friend Lord Waldegrave. His speech was entirely characteristic of his intellectual abilities and his great common sense. I hope that we will not have to wait too long before we hear from him again.
I join the whole of the committee in saying that we have been greatly heartened by the warm welcome given to the report. I want to pick up one point. It concerns the new guidelines. It is quite unclear whether we now have two sets of operative guidelines. That is a very unsatisfactory way of dealing with the matter. Those who have produced the new guidelines have some fence mending to do. I am glad that the Minister is to meet the people in COPUS because that is precisely the kind of job that that body, following its review, should take ahead and put into practice.
I agree with the Minister. These are good new guidelines. There is a strong emphasis on health—perhaps understandable because all the leading medical bodies were involved. The point made to me by the Press Complaints Commission was that they sit easily alongside its own guidelines. If that is so, and if the Royal Society can perhaps be persuaded that this may be the right way forward, we shall have in place a valuable new mechanism to improve relations between science and the press. That is all I intend to say.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.