Can Scientists be Trusted?

SGR Conference and AGM 2002

Friends Meeting House, London; 27 April 2002

Main presentation:
'What Does Society Need Science For?' by John Ziman, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Bristol

Workshops: How Should Science Be Funded?; Biotechnology and the Influence of Vested Interests; Science Communication - should scientists listen more?

 

What Does Society Need Science For?

Main presentation by Prof John Ziman FRS, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Bristol

Prof Ziman tackled the issue of the erosion of trust in science by starting with the question: 'What does society need science for?' He identified two basic categories of science: 'instrumental' and 'non-instrumental'. Instrumental science has 'foreseen' uses - specific goals defined mainly by the governments and corporations which fund it. These lead to technologies and applications which are argued to benefit society (but sometimes don't!) Non-instrumental science, on the other hand, is simply driven purely by scientific curiosity. However, it too has an important benefit, in that it helps society understand the world better. Ziman then went on to identify some important attributes of non-instrumental science including being carried out in public, and being self-critical and independent of vested interests.

Historically, Ziman argued, academic science has been non-instrumental, and various safeguards were introduced to ensure its independence and trustworthiness. However, the emphasis in scientific work has undergone a transition which has eroded much non-instrumental work. Academia must now justify itself by having direct practical utility, which in general means being able to be commercially exploited. This has undermined the attributes identified above with a major consequence being that independent scientific advice on, eg, environmental and health issues is lacking. Ziman argued that non-instrumental science is vital to pluralistic democracy and hence we need to find ways to reinstall it within society.

 

How Should Science Be Funded?

Wokshop led by Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR

Dr Parkinson highlighted two main problems in the funding of science and technology in the UK: the dominant level of corporate funding of R&D and the high fraction of Government spending which is military.

The workshop then discussed policy changes which may help address these problems. Suggestions included the following.

  • Increasing the funding given to Research Councils so that universities were less pressured into accepting corporate or military funding. Such funding could come from eco-taxes on unsustainable industry or a reduction in military funded projects
  • Separating non-instrumental and instrumental science departments to preserve the independence of non-instrumental scientists
  • Restricting the links between Research Councils and industry and/or having some lay input to the general areas to which scientific funding was directed.

It was felt that there were two important roles that SGR could play. The first was to carry out research to highlight which military funded scientific work might be axed in order to fund civil ones. The second was to publicise more widely within the scientific community the evidence that the UK arms industry is not necessary from an economic or employment perspective.

 

Biotechnology and the Influence of Vested Interests

Workshop led by Dr Eva Novotny, SGR

Dr Novotny presented evidence of the way in which large biotechnology corporations exert their influence upon governments, regulatory and advisory bodies, and individual scientists to further their own ends. In the workshop, time permitted an examination of only three instances:

  • the history of the approval of Monsanto's hormone rBST, in the United States and very nearly in Europe, through the machinations of the company despite the evidence of risk to the health of cows given the hormone and of human beings drinking the milk of these cows
  • the case of Lord Sainsbury in having multiple roles as UK Government Minister for science and technology, whilst holding interests in commercial and public agencies standing to benefit from development of GM products
  • the discreditation by the establishment of a respected senior scientist, Dr Arpad Pusztai, whose experiment indicated that genetically engineered potatoes had been detrimental to rats.

One outcome of the workshop was the decision that SGR will compile files on the influence of vested interests, as part of its work on Science Policy. One file will focus on biotechnology whilst a second will focus on other areas of science.

The workshop also discussed the ways in which individuals could take action to reduce the influence of corporations, for example, through ethical investment and ethical consumerism. A further suggestion was to set up more formal or legal modes of support for whistle-blowers and other scientists encountering ethical dilemmas in corporate funded research.

 

Science Communication: should scientists listen more?

Workshop led by Dr Chris Langley, former director of the Media Resource Service

Dr Langley catalysed a debate on the issue of science communication with the aim of establishing, among other things, the preferred relationship between the responsible scientist and the media; whether scientists should listen more to public opinion and whether it would make much difference if they did.

The workshop agreed that it is important that scientists enter into the communication process and that it is the responsibility of all scientists to bring to the public's attention the implications of their work. This, however, is often hard to do. Issues of concern include the use of numbers and statistics to give weight to findings, which are often over-simplified by the media for the sake of a quick quote; the restricting influence of vested interests on scientists' freedom to communicate and the fact that with issues of great public interest or relevance, scientists can be too ready to comment when it is not their area of expertise and the public can be too inclined to believe the opinion of that person because they are a scientist.

Four recommendations resulted directly from this workshop:

  • SGR should offer a clearing-house for scientists to air their concerns about unethical or inhumane research practices that they are unable to address within their place of employment. It could perhaps, where permitted/feasible, feed such insights to a media contact
  • SGR should make more efforts to influence various meetings of organisations such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Science Education in order to present an alternative view
  • SGR should look at the list of funding and patent applications to see if any are worthy of attention and also compile a file of vested interests behind research. Longer term this could lead to press coverage of issues of which the public were previously ignorant
  • SGR should revisit its publications initiative in order to increase awareness among both the various publics and the press.

 

Final Plenary Session

Tim Foxon introduced spokespeople from the three workshops so that they could summarise their findings.

The ensuing discussion produced support for most of the suggestions emerging from the workshops. A call was made for volunteers, in particular, to begin the work of compiling files on the influence of vested interests in science. Two people put themselves forward and this project is now underway.

There was also a suggestion put forward to investigate the possibility of obtaining lottery funding for some of the recommended projects.

Stuart Parkinson closed the conference by thanking everyone for coming and saying the day had been a very good and productive one. As usual the limiting factor is the number of people with available time to work on any of the ideas that have emerged, so volunteers are always welcome. SGR is currently in the process of trying to secure funding and additional proposals for fundable projects are also welcome.

 

SGR AGM

The Chair, Stuart Parkinson, began the AGM by summarising SGR's activities over the last year as outlined in the Annual Report. These included the publication of the booklet 'An Ethical Career in Science and Technology?', the joint conference last May on the US's National Missile Defence system, and the UK Week of Science and Peace.

SGR's National Co-ordinating Committee (NCC) for 2002-2003 was then elected (unopposed):

Chair -- Stuart Parkinson
Vice-Chair -- Philip Webber
Treasurer -- Jenny Nelson
Secretary -- Tim Foxon
Members -- Alan Cottey, Patrick Nicholson, Eva Novotny, Vanessa Spedding, Yunus Yasin

Two constitutional amendments were then discussed. The first was the proposal to update SGR's aims, based on the results of the internal review completed last year. The second proposal was to allow the NCC (rather than the AGM) to set the membership rates. Both amendments were passed with the necessary two-thirds majority. However, it should be noted that concern was expressed over the first amendment, due to the fact that nuclear weapons were no longer to be explicitly mentioned in the aims, only weapons of mass destruction. The NCC argued that that nuclear weapons obviously came under this umbrella term, but they accepted that some organisations (eg UK Government) have tried to play down this point. The NCC agreed that SGR communications on this issue should not fall into the same trap.