§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Greenfield
rose to call attention to mechanisms to improve communication between scientists and politicians with a view to better public understanding of scientific policies; and to move for Papers.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the astronomer Carl Sagan once said that it was suicide to live in a society dependent on science and technology, where hardly anyone knew anything about science and 651 technology. It is now some three-and-a-half years since the publication of the House of Lords Select Committee report, Science and Society. That committee was chaired by the noble Lord. Lord Jenkin of Roding.
In addition, the excellent work of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology continues to provide balanced and objective analysis of science and technology issues to both Houses. Then there is the Royal Society's MP/scientist pairing scheme, a reassuring example of dialogue between the two communities even though the beneficiaries may be only a handful of scientists and MPs each year.
Since the Jenkin report, a thousand flowers have been blooming—in books, TV programmes, science centres and, indeed, events and fora such as those that we are proud to host at the Royal Institution, where I am the director. Indeed, within the past year, we have held two debates at the Royal Institution to address specifically the problem of communication between scientists and politicians, especially the communication they have on the record, in the eye of the media. In our most recent debate on 20th November, everyone pooled their ideas: scientists, politicians, along with some representatives of the media and, most importantly, the general public. We attempted not only to tease out the specific issues but to see whether there was any way in which we could resolve them.
The number of noble Lords wishing to speak in this debate is surely testimony to an inescapable issue: that there is still insufficient dialogue between politicians and scientists, and a lack of understanding of their respective agendas. Only a few weeks ago the "Today" programme, and indeed "PM" on Radio 4 at the end of the day, covered the important story of how, in the words of the political correspondent of The Times,More than 100 leading scientists have made a once-in-a-generation appeal to Tony Blair to save British science from a tide of neglect and abuse that is driving the brightest young brains abroad".This letter arose from an initiative "Sense about Science" organised by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne. I shall leave him to amplify, as he wishes, its background and content.
This lack of adequate communication between politicians and scientists impacts on a public who remain confused about where the scientists' role ends, and where that of the politicians begins, and vice versa. Small wonder then that the public are not comforted by the efforts of scientists and politicians to handle crises encompassing science and technology such as the MMR vaccine, mobile phones, GM foods and BSE.
For example, in the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, into the BSE crisis, three major themes were drawn out as contributing to the disaster. First, decisions were apparently being made for political expediency rather than with a premium on public health. Secondly, all the decisions were made in secret with no transparency. Thirdly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, described a "culture of sedation": one where false reassurances of certainty were given, where certainty did not exist.
652 At the moment each side, the politicians and the scientists, tends to approach the other with the attitude, "Here is a problem; you solve it". Politicians expect a simple answer from the experts, while the experts expect politicians to solve the problem for society that their far-from-simple answer generates. This two-way shifting of the buck sends out signals to the general public that politicians and scientists are not working together as seamlessly and effectively as they might. I suggest that this bottleneck in communication between scientists and politicians—or lack of it—lies not only in the absence of opportunity, but in a discrepancy of agenda.
For example, scientists will tend to take a long-term view, embarking on studies that may extend over some five or 10 years, or even more. Politicians, on the other hand, with their limited tenure of office, need answers quickly and have a time scale of three years or usually much less.
Scientists are often portrayed, and sometimes even portray themselves, as the guardians of a codified fixed body of knowledge. But that knowledge is constantly being re-examined: it evolves, and is often transformed, through time.
Scientists are used to admitting to uncertainty, and are most comfortable painting in shades of grey. Issues are not proved categorically or disproven overnight; rather there are endless iterations on a subject with different opinions, interpretations, redefinitions and further experimentation, so that gradually a truth will emerge. But it is always a provisional truth, always open and vulnerable to the next finding. One topical example comes from Professor Simon Murch, who had recently subscribed to the view that the MMR vaccine might be linked to autism. In the light of further studies, he now considers it safe. Some quarters of the media attempted to portray him as going back on his word, but he was accurately reflecting the way in which scientific opinion is driven by data and can change as those data accumulate.
Politicians, on the other hand, are under sometimes understandable pressure from their electorate to demand an immediate yes/no answer. For them, there should be no uncertainty in interpretation of what has happened to date, and no element of risk regarding the future. Indeed, one might even think of politicians, especially those in government along with the Civil Service, as being in the business of minimising risk, whereas, for the scientist, every experiment involves the risk of their hypothesis being wrong. If there were no risk, there would be no point in doing the experiment.
Scientists will use the tools of experimentation to reach a solution. Meanwhile, politicians tend to the audit, the consultation and the focus group, and are driven by difficulties arising from an undesirable situation. The agenda for scientists in its purest form is mainly curiosity-driven—to be proactive rather than reactive to an existing crisis.
Another important difference is that scientists usually think of themselves as specialists, whereas the politician has to be a generalist. Scientists are indeed accountable 653 to other colleagues only within their relatively narrow specialist area, whereas politicians answer to the general public. That is one reason why the issue of communication of science to the general public still sits very uneasily with many scientists, yet is high on the agenda for politicians. As a result, scientists will communicate in seemingly idiosyncratic terminology and jargon, which means that they and their work are not easily tractable to the agenda of politicians, who in turn reach for easily understandable answers and soundbites, particularly those that can play out well in the media. Such soundbites can appear in turn as gross oversimplifications to scientists.
On top of those fundamental discrepancies in agenda and mindset, there is then the problem of actual opportunity for dialogue or communication. For example, speaking at the debate last month at the Royal Institution, Professor John Lawton, the chief executive of the National Environment Research Council—NERC—drew a comparison between his current position and when he was the chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In that latter capacity, he had access to a Minister allegedly whenever he liked, and he regularly took advantage of that conduit. In contrast, as chief executive of NERC, he revealed that he had never been invited to speak to a Minister, even though he now has a much wider grasp of a whole host of environmental issues.
Professor Lawton's experience surely indicates that Ministers are more interested in speaking to powerful lobby groups than to scientific bodies. Now imagine the plight of a grass-root scientist who is not the head of a formal organisation, and who would therefore find it even harder to access or influence government thinking. For example, imagine a scheme—one that I have mused on myself—for promoting the democratisation of science through universities. The idea, which I must confess that I have not ventilated until now, would be to make maximal use of the vacant lecture theatres in evenings and weekends within each university, to host the local community in a scenario that would enable them to meet their local scientists and join together in talks, panel discussions and debates.
The whole point of such a scheme would be that the scientist would gain valuable experience in communicating with the general public and, in turn, the public would no longer regard universities as remote ivory towers, but rather, as they should be, key features of the community landscape.
By fostering a nationwide local and regional dialogue between the general public and the scientist at each university throughout the country, much of the fear and paranoia of science might start to dissolve. Science would acquire, literally and metaphorically, a human face; science itself would be truly mainstreamed in society. The dream would be that a science event could be as exciting and interesting as going to the cinema or a concert.
But suppose that I, as a grass-root scientist, had had such an idea. Where would I turn? Perhaps to the Department of Trade and Industry, or would it be the Department for Education and Skills or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? After all, surely it is that 654 latter department that would be the most obvious source of funding to subsidise overtime or teaching remission of university scientists participating in such an outreach scheme to the public. It would not help me, of course, and I might be baffled, standing remote from the machinery of government and the political world, that none of the departments had "science" in the title. And even were I to approach one of the three departments at random, how could I be assured that there was active communication between them to expedite a project that might well fall in the purlieu of them all?
At the moment, the best for which a scientist might hope is to be available on standby, in response mode, if and when approached. Indeed, I have experienced helping in the production of two government reports, one on creative and cultural education, and the other on women in science. As a result, I realise just how important and effective such initiatives can be, and am sure that many other scientists would relish the chance to suggest further topics where they perceive a need. How would the scientists themselves set in train any new initiative? Where and what is the procedural machinery? If it is in place already, it is not part of the science community culture, and is not a familiar reference point in coffee-time conversation in university departments.
Meanwhile, the problem for politicians is different, in that for the most part their lack of a science background means that they need to trust the experts utterly and unconditionally. But surely a grasp of the basic concepts of scientific method, agenda and some key facts would enable them to delegate more appropriately and effectively. As it stands, the ensuing disconnection between power and responsibility is as dangerous as it is undesirable. The more politicians and scientists talk to each other, the more the culture, constraints and concepts of science—and, by the same token, of politics—will rub off, and become respectively familiar territory.
A further difficulty, however, is that such an agenda does not fit well with party politics. It is notable that there was no mention of science in the Queen's Speech. The Government presumably do not want to debate issues that cut across traditional political ideologies and would be most appropriate to a large number of free votes. Cloning, fertility and end-of-life issues will become debates of conscience, and are therefore much more difficult for maintaining a party line. Because such debates are often not held until there is a crisis, legislation is often brought in too late, and based on a less than optimal familiarity with the subject. That situation is further aggravated by a temptation, one fuelled by the media, for opposition parties simply to criticise the Government in order to get coverage rather than to establish the scientific truth.
The critical issue is that politicians and government, in this instance, should not be the followers of public opinion, which in turn bases its knowledge of science on journalists who in many cases cannot lay claim to any expertise in the area. Instead, surely it is the scientists who should be playing a more proactive and central role. Of course, scientists cannot become politicians or tell 655 politicians what to do, any more than those who sit full-time in Parliament could be card-carrying experts on the sophisticated and fast-moving developments in information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. But only by the previously disparate constituencies joining together can beneficial and informed decisions be made.
The Government have made some great strides recently, not least the University Challenge scheme, and the science and engineering ambassadors scheme, which enables scientists to go into the classrooms and inspire and be role models to schoolchildren. Of course, the increase in science funding and infrastructure has made a huge difference, not only to scientific research but in helping to lift scientists' morale. Although those are very impressive moves, there is none the less still the central issue of how to integrate science more fully into the mainstream of society, and hence into the politicians' mindset and policy toolkit. As the Jenkin report acknowledged, there is a lack of trust in science still, especially when associated with government or industry. What we need now is to think of schemes that will expedite more interaction, and as widely as possible.
The situation is pressing. We urgently need to seek ways in which knowledge is transferred into innovation and wealth. That topic is explored in the Lambert review, and indeed, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has pointed out, might also help to alleviate the vexed issue of university funding. We might well look to other countries. In India, for example, scientists and technologists are held in great esteem, and that country is beginning to reap tremendous benefits. Similarly in America, the culture of technology transfer and the mainstreaming and understanding of science in universities is generating serious income. The annual licensing survey of the Association of University Technology Managers shows that total university income in the USA from patents increased from 699 million dollars in 1997 to 1.07 billion dollars in 2001.
In the UK, however, universities are also increasingly exploiting their scientific discoveries commercially. The recent report by Nottingham University Business School on technology transfer in universities for 2002–03 describes a significant increase in staffing numbers, of spin-outs financed through the University Challenge scheme, invention disclosures, patents issued and licences executed. Licensing income is still at some £22.4 million. In addition, high-tech and biotech industries are realising that people are the only sustainable asset. Although those industries make investments in university research partly because of tax credits, they do so primarily because of the quality of the talent base. Such a talent base will flourish only—indeed, income to universities from IP will grow only—in a society that is not just sympathetic to but actively supportive of science.
Accordingly, three possible ideas come immediately to mind. The first might be a government-organised website targeted at any scientist in a university-based department, enabling them to send in any bright ideas or thoughts where they know there would be a one-stop shop to the government departments. Such a website, one might hope, could also act as a forum whereby the 656 suggestions would be open for other scientists to comment, and one could start a virtual debate between anyone who felt interested. That dialogue, of course, should and could be completely transparent. Ideally, there could even be just one governmental website for science that also brings together all the science Select Committee reports, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology reports and commissioned reports.
A second idea would be to develop a scheme whereby the local scientists, again in the universities, have regular meetings with their respective MPs. Perhaps that happens already but, to the best of my knowledge, not on a systematic or nation-wide basis. An MP could pay a monthly visit to a different science department in turn in his or her university and/or each university could appoint an MP liaison officer or a science policy committee. Perhaps one of the outcomes of such communication could be the organisation of joint events for the local community, such as I outlined earlier.
Thirdly, from time to time, perhaps the Government would even subsidise, or at least look kindly upon, events such as those that we organise at the Royal Institution or which are organised elsewhere, where panels of scientists and politicians could debate with each other and the general public could be present, with no holds barred and on neutral territory.
Those are some thoughts simply to illustrate that it is possible to offer constructive ideas. Above all, it is important not simply to shake one's head in resignation at a difficult situation. The situation is difficult because we are entering a new era; one where science is central to our lives as never before. This new era requires a change. I am not suggesting that we transform the respective agendas of scientists and politicians; but let us establish a way of maximising the overlap between those agendas for the public good, and do so in a way that the public can appreciate. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Baroness Jay of Paddington
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this important debate on an issue which she and I have been discussing for some time. Our dialogue began when we were both at an international conference where two parallel strands of discussion—one on science and one on politics—were brought together in the hope of stimulating productive debate. In fact, there were heated and acrimonious exchanges between the two teams, with the noble Baroness and I on opposing sides. Each side blamed the other for public misunderstanding of whatever were the scientific hot topics of the day. It was a bruising encounter with little understanding of the difficulties encountered in either the political or the scientific spheres.
Since then the noble Baroness has, as she described, been a powerful figure in leading and creating détente between the two groups. Her various initiatives at the Royal Institution, in which she has been kind enough to include me, have been promoting the kind of productive dialogue which was the main aim of the original 657 conference. I say as a complete layman with some diffidence in this distinguished list of speakers, since I struggled with GCE level biology, I strongly believe that we must improve trust and communication between scientists and politicians so that we do not end up living in a 21st-century version of a Luddite society. That would be a society where scientific discovery was automatically greeted by public fear and suspicion to the detriment of not only our excellent science base, but to the quality of life for us all.
My main experience has been in health policy. In that area, there have been some good examples of appropriate co-operation between medical science and the legislators and regulators—in vitro fertilisation is one that springs to mind. Another, in which your Lordships more recently played a positive role, was the development of a statutory framework for stem cell research in which UK scientists were again at the forefront of potentially life-changing discoveries. We parliamentarians have helped them negotiate a working environment which in general is accepted by the public.
However, despite those positive examples and similar ones in other fields, recent surveys now show that more than half the public think that scientists are experimenting without adequately assessing the risks of their work. In other words, science is seen as moving too fast for public comfort and politicians stand accused perhaps of dishonesty or inefficiency in trying to regulate it. How do we address that?
First, the scientists and the politicians, as the noble Baroness said, must learn to trust each other more—both in communicating with each other and what is said severally or together to a wider audience. We must try to respect each others' priorities and foibles. I am aware of the point raised by the noble Baroness on the political desire for speedy results and cast-iron certainty. Equally, I ask the scientists to be tolerant of politicians' ignorance even when, as in my case, ignorance is not compounded by hostility. I vividly remember that, shortly after I became a Minister of Health in 1997, my right honourable friend Alan Milburn, who later became Secretary of State, and I had a meeting with an extremely senior scientific adviser to the Government. He told us in no uncertain terms that as we were both arts graduates it was unlikely that we would understand the fundamentals of many of the science-based policies which he and colleagues might be promoting, let alone be able to represent them adequately to Parliament and the public.
If I had drawn breath more quickly, I should have responded that it was a major part of his responsibility, as a government scientific adviser, to make sure that we did understand, and that it was at least part of his responsibility to communicate directly with the public and not to shelter behind us inadequate politicians. Of course there are many distinguished scientists, and many of them are taking part in this debate, who are excellent communicators. But perhaps even they would acknowledge that the first instinct of many of their colleagues is to shelter behind the walls of academe when faced with controversy.
658 The matter is all about risk—my second salient concept after trust—the immediate risk to any individual's reputation and, more dangerously, the public risk of trying to communicate uncertainty to a fearful and sceptical audience who are often stirred up by an alarmist media. I call this, at its crudest, the "Today" programme trap. The distinguished scientist is asked: "Can you guarantee there is no risk?"—to which there is not a categorical yes or no answer. The expert then appears to be communicating only frightening uncertainty, and the policymaker who has to act on that uncertainty appears yet again to be shifty and unreliable.
I am not suggesting that either politicians or scientists should be falsely didactic, still less promote unreliable reassurance. But it is in all our interests to develop a united and coherent strategy about how we communicate risk. Recently I have been encouraged to read a monograph based on a lecture by Dr Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Nature, called Connecting People to Science, whose top-line message was that everybody should be more open and direct about the uncertainties. He also offers readily understood scientific tools for describing and assessing uncertainty—for example tabulating a range of views on any topic so that, to quote Dr Campbell,this can be a way that one can see on a scale of dealing with public discussion about scientists who are out on a limb by putting them demonstrably in the context of their peers".In my inexpert judgment, that would be a useful way to handle some of the extreme views on, for example, the MMR vaccine.
This is a short debate and I must draw my remarks to a conclusion. But I find that that kind of cool application of objective tools to potentially misunderstood uncertainties both helpful and easy to understand. That is why today's debate is so important. If popular concerns that scientists are taking too many risks distorts policy decisions and valuable progress, we shall all lose.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkin of Roding
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for introducing what is clearly, judging by the number of speakers, a very hot topic. The opening speech from the noble Baroness gave a good indication of the ground about which she has been thinking deeply for some time. I am grateful for her comments on science and society and I shall return to that. I also welcome her endorsement of POST—the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. It produces a stream of valuable, informative papers for politicians and others. Furthermore, the Science Media Centre is playing an important role in bridging the gulf between journalists and scientists and the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, played a key role in setting that up.
I see two separate questions. First, how does advice from scientists reach Ministers? Are new mechanisms necessary, as called for by the Motion? Secondly, how do Ministers respond to that advice. Regarding the first question, although Ministers have many sources of 659 advice, a great deal depends on the standing and authority of the Government's principal scientific advisers—especially that of the Chief Scientific Adviser. Taking part in the debate is a former CSA, the noble Lord, Lord May of Oxford, and I warmly endorse the appointment of his successor, Sir David King
However, I share the view, as stated by my noble friend Lord Waldegrave when we debated the report Science and Society, that a mistake was made 10 years ago in moving the office of the OST out of the Cabinet Office and into the DTI. When it was in the Cabinet Office, the CSA was directly responsible to the Prime Minister. I believe, for example, that the problems we experienced with foot and mouth disease would not have occurred if the CSA had been in his previous position.
The issue is doubly important now in that we have a second senior person at the DTI—the chairman of Research Councils UK. I welcome the appointment of Sir Keith O'Nions to that post, but I see difficulty in terms of the tensions and differences ahead if both senior roles remain closeted within the DTI. It is right for RCUK, but I believe that the decision should be taken to return the OST to the Prime Minister's department.
The second issue concerns the other end of the question. What are the political pressures, on Ministers that seem to make it so difficult for them to take a supportive line on scientific advice which may be controversial? The noble Baroness drew attention to the remarkable letter signed by 114 prominent research scientists, who complained bitterly about their sense of betrayal and the lack of support for their research, particularly in the area of GM crops. Last year, the Prime Minister made a highly publicised speech at the Royal Society. Half the hall was filled by the media and it attracted wide attention. But what have we heard since then? The answer is: almost total silence. The result was that in October an article appeared in the Times Educational Supplement headlined:The CM debate cut down by threats and abuse".Of course, the issue of GM is not alone. The list of scientific controversies is a long one.
Therefore, I believe that one must ask: what are the pressures on Ministers? The answer is that the public remain fearful, as the noble Lord said. Here, I return to the subject of Science and Society, in which we argued that the lack of trust or understanding between the public and scientists—it is a question of scientists understanding the public as much as the other way round—lies at the heart of the problem. It is there that we must direct our attention.
I believe that the real answer lies in schools. The teaching of science over many decades has contributed to the problem rather than helped to solve it. I want to draw the House's attention to the new syllabus— "Science for the 21st Century"—now being produced for 13 to 16 year-olds, in which an entirely new approach is being adopted. It is currently being piloted and I believe that it will turn out to be the long-term solution to the problem that we are addressing.
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Lord Taverne
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as chairman of Sense About Science—an organisation set up to promote the evidence-based approach to scientific issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, as did the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned in her excellent and most stimulating speech the letter from the 114 scientists, which we helped to organise. They protested about the silence of the Government in the face of blatant misrepresentation of the results of the field-scale evaluation trials and mentioned that morale was low. I do not presume to speak for them. If I did, the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Turnberg, who signed the letter, would immediately put me right. However, perhaps I may give my personal opinion as to why morale is low, despite the fact that we have an excellent science Minister and the Government have considerably increased the science budget.
What is wrong is the Government's concern to appease the anti-science lobby groups. I shall give two examples. First, recently, the government chief scientist, for whom I have immense admiration, wrote to the press, obviously reflecting official policy, saying that the Government were neither for nor against genetic modification. Why is that so? Not a single leading plant biologist has any doubts that it is a technology that offers great potential benefits. GM cotton, for example, already benefits 5 million small third-world farmers. If he had said that the Government were neither for nor against particular applications, that would have been understandable. Whether an application is beneficial or harmful depends entirely on the circumstances, as, indeed, the trials have shown. However, to be neutral about the technology is like being neither for nor against science. Science, too, can be misapplied.
I turn to the second example. The Government set up the AEBC—the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission. Whom did they appoint as the lay members of the council? The answer is: the chair of Greenpeace; the chair of the Soil Association: another representative from Genewatch, a clone of Greenpeace; and another dedicated opponent of GM crops. They are supposed to represent the public when, in fact, they represent highly political lobby groups, ideologically opposed to GM, which do not give a hoot about evidence. No wonder the consultation exercise was such a fiasco. It is no help to scientists to bring dedicated opponents of science into the heart of policy-making. Appeasement simply strengthens the opposition.
I want to make one more point, not related to the subject matter of the letter. Scientists have been told that science should be more democratic, that they must take more notice of public fears and communicate better. I believe that that current conventional wisdom is at least partly misconceived. Science is not a 661 democratic activity any more than is art. Galileo once famously said of Church interference with the pursuit of truth:Why, this would be as if an absolute despot, being neither a physician nor an architect but knowing himself free to command, should undertake to administer medicines and erect buildings according to his whim—at grave peril of his poor patients' lives, and the speedy collapse of his edifices".The same would be true if the demos were substituted for the despot.
As for public misunderstandings, to blame scientists is largely to misinterpret their role. Of course scientists should be as open as possible. It is wonderful when someone such as the late Peter Medawar or, to put it in present terms, people such as Richard Dawkins or Robert Winston enthuse the public about science. But communication is not the primary job of scientists. That is to do good science. Einstein was not a worse scientist because he did not speak like Demosthenes or write like Jane Austin. The way in which the public learn about science is, and will always primarily be, through the media. Scares about GM food, pesticides, the MMR vaccine and mobile phone masts are not the fault of scientists but of the media.
§ 4.38 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Chester
My Lords, I join the expressions of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for initiating this debate. We were undergraduate scientists together at the University of Oxford in the early 1970s. I do not believe that we met, although there was a well worn path between Merton and St Hilda's in those days. While the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, went on to be one of the foremost scientists of her generation, my science remained largely at the equivalent level of the amoeba or the speck of plankton as I wandered off into the outer darkness which some, at least, associate with theology.
The point that I wish to make concerns the impact of science on modern western culture and, increasingly, on our global culture. The historian John Roberts once identified three key features which have shaped modern western culture. The first, he said, was science and technology; the second, the idea of the individual; and the third, simply the sheer power of modern western culture—a power which derives its main economic, technological and military strength from science itself.
Of those three shaping features, two are centrally concerned with science. Whether or not we recognise it—I agree that most people do not—to echo the comments of the noble Baroness, science is mainstream in our society. We easily forget that modern experimental science is a relatively recent arrival on the stage of history in 16th and 17th century Europe. Paradoxically, it seems to have required a break from ecclesiastical authority—one thinks, indeed, of Galileo. It also drew strength from a revised doctrine of creation, which freed itself from the rationalism and sacramentalism of the mediaeval view and emphasised, in Judaeo-Christian terms, that 662 creation was rational but, because it was the product of God's free will, it had to be investigated. One could not predict what one would find.
As such, science had to break free from some well established habits of thinking. For example, for 2,000 years astronomers assumed that the motion of the planets must be circular because, a priori, circular motion was the most natural and regular until Kepler came along, puzzling over some discrepancies in the data for the movement of Mars, and realised that an elliptical orbit would account for the facts. He wrote about that using mystical phrases of great rapture as he reflected upon the mystery of the Creator's hands, laid bare by human inquiry.
If we are to improve the public standing and understanding of science we need to start by recapturing something of that sense of celebration of science on its own terms, as a public good in its own right, just as we admire great art or, indeed, great sporting success. Science is not there just to supply the fuel of economic or military might or to help us live longer—God help us. It is a human achievement of the first order which shapes and transforms our culture. It gives a slightly odd impression that the Minister responsible is located in the DTI—I realise that there are many questions over where the Minister should be located—which can feed that rather over-pragmatic view of science.
That leads to the view that science should not be over-regulated. That, indeed, tends to kill the true spirit of scientific discovery as it did in Soviet Russia. There needs to be a broad public debate about science policies and the implications of scientific advance, particularly in sensitive areas such as genetic research. With hindsight, feeding animal remains to herbivores should have raised more debate before the disaster of BSE was upon us. Patience and caution with GM foods seems sensible, if frustrating for some, until we know more, although it needs to be considered case by case.
However, let us not reinforce by unnecessary suspicion what C.P. Snow used to call "the two cultures", with science and broader culture hardly in conversation. That conversation needs to have two partners. In a democracy there is a need to listen openly to what voters and taxpayers think. For example, although I agree that the lay voice in determining resource allocation should be strictly limited, it seems to me that scientific communities should not be too reluctant to encourage research into areas upon which mainstream science can tend to look down. Wider society has a growing interest in alternative medicine and complementary therapies, for example. If the head of Glaxo is correctly reported as believing that up to half the recipients of conventional drugs do not benefit from them, it does at least strengthen the case for research into a full range of possible treatments. That is not necessarily to pander to the politicised groups to which the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, rightly referred. Perhaps the Minister might remark on that in his reply.
663 The importance of giving science and the scientific community a clearer and more prominent place in society in whatever way can be devised—including, therefore, in our political life—is greater than ever. In some respects, not least in the media, we seem to be sinking into a world where perceptions matter more than truth, a world which Groucho Marx memorably captured when he said, "Are you going to believe what you see or what I am telling you?"
Science educates our eyes and minds and has brought great benefits to our lives. We should celebrate its achievements and, as a society, take great pride in them. That is the beginning of the wisdom on this subject.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, in her excellent speech the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, spoke about the differences in outlook between scientists and politicians. I agree that by their very nature scientists tend to take a long-term, more expert view and politicians a shorter-term view. But it was ever thus. It is inherent in the nature of democracy.
However, there is a more basic problem relating to communication between scientists and politicians, which needs addressing; that is, neither science nor politics speaks with a single voice. On virtually every science issue there are competing claims and different views, not only on questions of science. There are diverse views on related matters such as ethics, the environment, ecology, finance, social considerations, and sometimes there is just plain personal prejudice. That does not apply only to scientists. Politicians are equally at odds with each other. As noble Lords know, it is possible that the Government may not have a single view on a scientific issue despite all the efforts at joined-up government.
So the communication problem is not only between scientists and politicians but between scientist and scientist and politician and politician. We need look no further than the MMR vaccine dispute. Some of us may want scientific matters to be decided by scientists and political matters to be decided by politicians. But life does not fit into those neat compartments. Science and politics have become intermingled because of the perceived risks. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, spoke of that. At the end of the day decisions and choices have to be made. A politician or a scientist has to decide. They have to assess and judge the competing claims and choose. That is what they were elected or appointed to do and that is what they are paid to do.
It is in that process of assessing, choosing and deciding between those often opposing views that all the various organisations which have been set up to inform, facilitate and help make those choices, are so valuable. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Foundation for Science and Technology, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, the British Association, the Royal Institution, Dr King's office, the scientific advisers and 664 the Select Committees of both Houses all play a valuable role in helping scientists and politicians assess competing claims and make a choice.
But there is more to be done. Winning the argument is not enough. Not only do you have to win the argument; you have to win the hearts and minds. That is where the 1,000 blooms mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, do invaluable work. Winning hearts and minds involves tricky and difficult matters such as trust, being perceived as honest, working for the public interest rather than private or vested interests, keeping promises and learning from mistakes.
An enormous amount of work goes into achieving that. Work also goes into assessing the different views of scientist and scientist and politician and politician. I hope that the Minister will agree that all that work must be an instrument for good because it provides a mechanism for improved communication between scientists and politicians. It is an instrument which will help to win the hearts and minds of the public, resulting in more public confidence and trust in the scientific policies and the decisions made on the public's behalf. I think that that is the whole purpose of the question asked by the noble Baroness.
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ Lord Chan
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Greenfield on securing this important debate and being the catalyst in bringing together scientists and politicians.
The UK is one of the world's leading countries in science and scientific research, as evidenced by the impressive number of Nobel prizes awarded to our scientists in the past and particularly this year. The difficulties between scientists and politicians have been expertly outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield. The excellence of our scientists has not been translated into large-scale manufacture of scientific inventions in the UK. Too often our innovative scientific discoveries, such as the computer and computerised scanning machines used in medical diagnosis, have been manufactured abroad with little or no economic benefit to the nation. The Lambert report has outlined some solutions. But one cause of this discrepancy lies in the inadequate communication between research scientists and politicians as well as the different interests of the two groups.
The language of scientists is technical and difficult for the non-scientist to understand. As most politicians are lawyers, it is not surprising that communication between scientists and politicians is at best limited, particularly in the light of the ethos of science and the strategy of politicians to gain support from the public, especially those who would exercise their vote through the ballot box. I shall draw on the experience of communication between medical scientists and other professionals, including politicians, to illustrate an increasingly effective communications strategy that can be adopted by research scientists in non-medical fields. Of course, I admit that health, and in particular the NHS, attracts 665 public attention easily because it affects the lives of people more overtly than basic scientific research. But that perception can be improved, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, has outlined.
In the NHS, medical and scientific terms are kept to the essential minimum in written reports and in discussions between clinical medical and non-medical managerial staff. Awareness of significant issues in medical science when applied to patient care has clearly improved over the past six years. The dissemination of these reports on easily accessible computer websites such as those of the Department of Health, the Royal Colleges and the professional associations, has made it easy for the public to read them. As a result, questions are asked by constituents of their local MP and newspapers also focus on issues relating to diagnostic tests, treatment regimes and the outcomes of treatment. Whether these websites influence a better understanding of scientific policy is debatable, but they are useful for getting the public to consider scientific advances that affect their lives and well-being.
Next, local Members of Parliament meet regularly with NHS primary care trust chairs and chief executives in Merseyside. These meetings focus on the implementation of improvements for the benefit of patients. MPs are very supportive of the work done by PCTs and demonstrate their commitment by asking questions of health Ministers in Parliament, such as on cigarette advertising and smoking in public places.
The parallel to this type of contact and communication in basic science would involve heads of science departments in universities meeting their local MPs in order to explain their work and to emphasise important issues that can be pursued in Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, focused on that aspect. Apart from the usual concerns, these meetings could focus on the findings of scientific research done locally. The application of such research would be of interest to all informed people, including MPs.
The positive results of this level of involvement are clearly seen in Parliament. New Peers from the world of scientific research appointed to the House of Lords would strengthen links between Parliament and politicians and scientists. The Science and Technology Committees of both Houses of Parliament would no doubt respond positively when contacted with proposals for discussion on scientific policies by universities, scientific academies and the Royal Society.
Finally, the proliferation of all-parliamentary groups on various medically related issues should serve as an encouragement to scientists and science-related charities as well as august scientific bodies to lobby MPs and Peers.
I look forward to the Minister giving his view on how some of these lines of communication can be beneficial to a better understanding between scientists and politicians.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Lord Waldegrave of North Hill
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for the debate.
I start by picking up one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chan—and thoroughly agreeing with it; namely, if we are to have an appointed House of Lords, surely an ideal way to bring forward leading scientists and technologies is by strengthening the already powerful voices already in the Chamber. In my five minutes I want to make two points: one institutional point and one anecdotal.
I shall deal with my institutional point first. I have the honour to be the president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. My role is exactly as described by my title: I preside while others do the work. Mr Richard Page MP has recently taken over as chairman from Mr Ian Gibson MP, who has been absolutely admirable for the past three or four years. I am sure that Richard Page will do an equally good job. I would like to mention Alan Whitehouse and Annabel Lloyd who do the day-to-day work. Among other things, they produce the excellent magazine, Science in Parliament. That enables me to make my first point.
If we look in Science in Parliament, on page 64 we find in the Science Diary a plethora of very good organisations in this country, which do excellent work, with lists of admirable meetings bringing politicians, scientists, engineers and academics together. There is the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee itself, the Royal Society and the National Institution, over which the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, presides.
So my first message is that we should not invent more institutions or reinvent the wheel, but that we should put new tyres, if necessary, on the wheels we have. These are excellent institutions. The meetings listed on these back pages go right across the spectrum of what any intelligent group of people would want to see discussed between politicians, scientists and technologists. So if there is more money to be found and more energy to be expended, let us use it in revitalising those institutions which already carry great loyalties and have great achievements behind them.
The second of my interests, or hats that I wear today, is as chairman of the Trustees of the National Museum of Science and Industry, known to most people as the Science Museum. I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, that, fundamentally, politicians respond to an educated population in these areas. No more powerful institution exists in this country for the education of the population in science and technology than the Science Museum, with its great family of museums: in York—the railway museum; and in Bradford, the photographic, film and television museum.
However, we have a problem. I must mention it in passing. We are presently funded by the Government on the basis that we would get, after pre-entry, about 1.8 million more visitors. In total, we have about 3 million visitors, which is a success for the Government's policy, but it means that there is a 667 tremendous strain on all the modern interactive exhibits and functions we have in those museums which are targeted at introducing children. We have 1.5 million children passing through the museum every year. The exhibits and so on are getting worn out. I welcome the fact that we are overwhelmed with people, but we must be funded for the level of success that the Government's own policy has produced.
I pass on quickly before we get into trouble with the Treasury. But the point is a real one: the Science Museum's origins were in helping science teachers to teach science in schools. They used to come to the Science Museum and borrow exhibits to take to the classroom. We do it in rather more modern ways now. We have millions of hits on our websites and so on. The power of that institution for good in educating the population in science is still very great.
I turn to my anecdotal evidence. The Chief Scientific Adviser, who has rightly been referred to. should in my view amuse himself by developing a code for Ministers on how to interact with science. The first thing he should say to Ministers dealing with science is, "Pay no attention to me as chief scientist, distinguished though I am—even if I am the noble Lord, Lord May of Oxford—because I am now a former scientist. I am your adviser, so I am not practising science".
Secondly, he should say, "You should pay a great deal of attention to me in finding the scientists to whom you should listen. Do not allow your generalist civil servants or me to mediate. Go out and listen to them yourselves". Then he should say, "Find the troublesome ones. Find the outlier, who all the chaps and chapesses in the Royal Society say is a little potty", because just every now and then he or she turns out to be right. It is quite a good idea to listen to them. Sometimes they are potty, but often they are not. Frequently they are like Galileo, who was wrong about most things, but was right about one very important thing. So, it is very important, not to over-listen to outliers, but to listen to them.
One should then seek to protect oneself—as one will always want to as a politician—not in the bogus authority of a single scientific view which never exists, but by laying an open audit trail of how one would reach the rational decision. That is the best protection one can have. Remember never to talk about "100 per cent", "total certainty", or to say that anything is "totally safe". Finally, remember that one cannot get the scientists to take the decision; that is your job.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord May of Oxford
My Lords, applications of advances in scientific understanding have offered and continue to offer many possibilities for making life better in both developed and developing countries. But, as the past century has shown, they also run the risk of unintended adverse consequences, of which climate change and diminishing biological diversity are but two among several. So the real question is how do we learn to do a better job of asking which doors to open and which doors to leave closed?
668 In all such decisions, scientific facts and scientific uncertainties set the stage, putting constraints on the possible choices. Ideally, a drama of public debate and democratic choice is then played out on that stage. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that science has a special role in framing the stage. But science has no special voice in making the choices, which usually rest on values, beliefs and feelings.
I take a more up-beat view than many of the previous speakers in the debate in that I believe the UK public—or, to be more accurate, the many different UK publics—and the present UK Government, including our excellent science Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, have done rather well in framing and openly conducting recent debates, for example, on stem cell research, on aspects of new methods of genetic modification of crops and much else. Lapsing into my characteristic mode of academic patronising utterance, I would give them an A-/B +. That has to be read against the fact that I am not a victim of grade inflation and that I would give most other countries a C or a D or, in some notable cases, a resounding F.
Indeed, pausing for a commercial while at the same time confessing an interest, I believe that the Royal Society in particular has played an active—and sometimes an aggressive and energetic—part in some of these debates. Even so, the best such debates remain clouded by at least three kinds of misunderstanding.
The first misunderstanding is that the public do not trust scientists. People have always distrusted "the new", but in earlier times they expressed their distrust in a greatly more draconian manner—for instance, in the burning of Bruno. Galileo, who has been referred to repeatedly in the debate, merely got shut in his house and was asked to mumble the truth under his breath. A couple of centuries ago there were riots in the streets when vaccination first appeared.
Many recent polls show that the general public believe that,scientists and engineers make a valuable contribution to society"—84 per cent according to one poll—and that,scientists want to make life better for the average person"—64 per cent according to the same poll. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, reminded the House, the same people worry that the pace of scientific advice today is too fast for the Government to keep up with effective oversight and regulation. That is a worry that strikes me as sensible.
The second misunderstanding is that people would worry less if only they knew more about science. In fact, polls—especially polls in different countries of the European Union—show that the more the general citizenry know about science the more they worry. As I am sometimes misunderstood, I hasten to add that I am not advocating that we therefore educate people less in science; quite the contrary. The finding makes a great deal of sense. The more you know about science, the more you worry about unintended consequences.
669 The third and most difficult misunderstanding was touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, at the outset—that is, the widely held feeling that science is about certainty. After all, that is how we meet it in school; mostly in university; certainly on quiz shows. You cannot run a quiz show without there being a lack of ambiguity in the answers. But, in its essence, science is much more about asking questions than about certain answers.
That is not to say that the result of many past questions, systematically pursued through fact-based observations and experiments, is knowledge that today is effectively certain—the second law of thermodynamics; the inverse square law of gravitation; that HIV causes AIDS. The problem is that many of the contemporary issues that bear upon us—should we worry about mobile phones; will GM crops further intensify agriculture and harm the environment; can adult cells deliver the benefits we look to from embryonic stem cells?—lie at or beyond the frontiers of knowledge. Here it is vital that we are clear about what is known, what questions remain open and how we are seeking to address them.
The problem is not helped by people—many of them well intentioned—who derive absolute certainty from fixed ideological positions that override any experimental fact. But it is on this cluttered, messy stage that the debates of choice must be conducted. I believe that the world will be a better place for all of us by advancing such debates in an open and committed manner.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Lord Stone of Blackheath
My Lords, the seminal Science and Society report also revealed something quite sinister. It recognised that if scientists continue to be vilified in the media and by pressure groups, people would eventually lose faith in science and we would lose an invaluable aid to government decision making.
Since then I have had the privilege of working with the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, helping the Royal Institution to set up its high-quality science media centre. As has been said, it has continued effectively to equip the public with the tools necessary to comprehend the frameworks which guide scientists in their work and, in doing so, dramatically to improve the understanding of how science interacts with politics.
The Scientific Alliance is another young organisation that has been doing just this within environmental politics. Working with it has brought two things into focus for me. First, that people should know that science does not purport to be an ineluctable set of truths. They should know this but know how scientists advise politicians and how politicians try to act upon that advice to the wider benefit of society. Secondly, as an entrepreneur, I realise that I have something to say on the risk and risk avoidance that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said was at the heart of today's debate. We should accept that sometimes there is an even greater risk in not taking a risk.
670 So as regards "risk", it is the responsibility of politicians, with the advice of scientists, to communicate the level of risk to the public on issues. Scientists are guided by risk assessment in their work and I believe that politicians should apply this notion as well.
But politicians, faced with emotional arguments from lobby groups and the media, have turned to the precautionary principle too often and too strongly. Sensationalist media suggest that because scientists cannot prove something to be 100 per cent safe one must assume that it is positively dangerous. Consequently, the public start to lose trust in the science itself.
In defence, scientists desperately try to balance the debate but often they lack the specialist skills and the huge resources available to lobby groups. Scientists are taught to be tentative and most do not talk in "sound-bites", but science is the best mechanism we have to provide us with a balanced version of the risks and opportunities. If we try to apply the precautionary approach to all advances, we shall cease to exist as a modern society.
I am no scientist—in fact, I was banned for life from the school biology lab for a transgression—but, in my own field of retailing, to create billions of pounds each year of innovative consumer products we must take risks. Fashion is fickle and, in textiles and foods, a new product cannot be tested to death. We have to rely on forward-looking designers for appearance and applied science from experienced technologists for performance. Neither can give a 100 per cent guarantee. You take their best advice and then you make the best decision and take the risk. Making the wrong decision can cause a set-back, but even worse damage can be done by not taking the decision at all or simply going for the safest option. That can bring down the whole company. If we want to make progress, risk cannot be avoided or evaded.
In medical health—as an example of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chan—I am chairman of a ground-breaking charitable project called DIPEx, which stands for "direct personal experience of illness". We use science to help to talk about risks so that the public can make informed choices. DIPEx allows people who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition or illness to see other patients' experiences on video. That helps them to understand the risks when making very hard decisions at critical times and how to live with their conditions. Our site is now accessed by 300,000 people a month. The science and technology involved is highly sophisticated, but the site lets people understand it in their own terms.
Finally, we have mentioned schools and universities. Our education system also has a role to play in enabling understanding of scientific method. We must shift how we teach our children about science. When we teach English literature or history in schools, we do not expect all pupils to become novelists or historians. Instead, we teach everyone about the methodology underlying literary criticism or historical investigation, so that they can appreciate those paradigms and how they fit with society.
671 We need the same approach to science education. New science will prepare all children with the tools to appreciate what methods science uses and what that can do for society. We must also, as the organisation Enquiring Minds suggests, allow students to perform their own experiments outside the laboratory and let them understand that results in science are not always black and white, but sometimes fuzzy.
In conclusion, within my five minutes, we should take the informed, balanced and expert advice that only science can provide, not ask scientists to decide on policy or blame them when things go wrong. We should help scientists to clarify their message in the public sphere and make clear that scientific interpretations change over time. Finally, as politicians, we should be sufficiently confident in the public to share with them the risks attached to new medicine and technologies and to engage in reasoned debate on the risks that we need to take as a society. Society's future depends on that.
§ 5.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Greengross
My Lords, as a non-scientist, I add my warm congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, and other speakers, all eminent and many specialists in the field. I also join the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, in paying tribute to Dr Ian Gibson, a Member of another place. He is a rare example of someone who successfully combines party politics and science, which is one reason why he is much in demand in the media, like the Minister and others joining in today's debate. It is vital to tackle communication breakdown between academia in general, but science and medicine in particular, and the wider general public, including politicians and policy makers. Otherwise, that can lead to errors that, as we know, sometimes have serious or tragic results.
For that to happen, trust and transparency are essential. We know that the public do not trust either scientists or politicians after the many recent scares— BSE, MMR, the US Navy ships to be broken up here, and so on. There are many such examples. But the fault is often as much with scientists as with anyone else. They must learn to communicate with politicians: to speak their language when selling new ideas and discoveries to their customers, which is what the politicians are.
We have not yet really learned the lessons from the misunderstandings of science after such recent scares. One obvious example of what can go wrong is when clinical trials exclude certain sectors of the population—for example, people over 65. Those people may well benefit most from the treatment being tested, but we do not get a chance to know that. By the same token, they can suffer by being treated in the same way as younger people, with harmful results.
I echo other noble Lords in mentioning the role of the media, which is critical. Evan Davis, the BBC economics editor, spoke recently about trust at the most recent meeting of the All-Party Group on Corporate Social Responsibility, which I am privileged to chair. His point, made about journalists, 672 also applies to politicians. They must trust the information that they are given; they must know that it is accurate and balanced. In other words, they need to know the other side of the story if they are to be able to give an informed view.
Along with the noble Lord, Lord Stone, I welcome the initiative of the Science Media Centre, involving the Royal Institution, where great efforts are made to raise the level of debate in the media about scientific issues, so that they are not always reported hysterically or in an unbalanced way, as has happened too many times. A good example is the work of Palab Ghosh, the BBC's science correspondent, who makes science come to life and meaningful to a wide audience.
Related to the issue of trust and balance is the accountability of non-governmental organisations. They have a right to put their case to the media and the wider public, but that must be based on accurate information given to relevant journalists and must acknowledge the other side of the story. I here follow the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Taverns. It is difficult for scientists and politicians to know how to handle powerful campaigning and lobby groups that are trusted more than themselves and which, as we know, can hype up a cause with no direct responsibility for the wider impact of their campaign. I speak here as the former head of a campaigning charity and an international NGO.
As well as the media, NGOs and the public, I agree that it is not just politicians but their civil servants, advisers, researchers and so on who need to understand the basic aims and methods of science and their context. That starts in schools, where many young people still drop science too early, especially between 14 and 16, although that is set to improve greatly, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, so eloquently stated. As Ian Gibson has put it, it is important to recognise the "dual purpose" of science education: obviously, to further specific scientific study; but also to enhance society's wider scientific literacy. That must help to remove the hostility and suspicion of science among the general public.
There are some interesting lessons to learn from the conclusions of the inquiry on science education of the Science and Technology Select Committee in another place in the previous Session. I hope that we will hear from the Minister how that report has been followed up since its publication.
Lastly, I mention higher education. Is it too much to suggest that we might again build up the role of the new universities—the old polys—as the primary resource and centre for excellence for applied science and technology for vocational careers, giving the best of them the status of some of the great polytechnics across the Channel?
This debate is important because science and technology are central to our lives. It could equally have centred on many other areas of life where better understanding and interpretation are needed so that we can restore authority and respect to those who have the power to shape our future—both as scientists and as politicians.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, we all owe the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, a debt for introducing this important debate. There is no doubt that something of a crisis is affecting trust in science, the advice given by scientists and, indeed, the recruitment of scientists to university.
My noble friend Lady Jay mentioned stem cell and embryo research as being two outliers that do not follow the normal pattern in that they have been accepted by the public. I suspect that that is partly because government were largely uninvolved in those debates and partly because the public well understood that that research was potentially of great benefit. That was an example of genuine dialogue—a matter to which I shall return shortly.
However, as many speakers, especially the noble Lord, Lord May, said, communication is only the tip of the iceberg. As he said, it seems that the more knowledge, the more distrust—something to which he referred in his Royal Society presidential speech last year and again today. We scientists have to learn something that will be difficult and take a considerable time. It was addressed in the Science and Society report so able chaired by my noble colleague—may I call him a friend?—Lord Jenkin.
First, we scientists will have to show much greater sensitivity to ethics and ethical attitudes—that will be clear. Secondly, we must reinforce public ownership of science, which will be even more difficult. With all due respect to the Minister, my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, it is not right to say that the Government were generous with their science funding. We are extremely grateful to the Minister, but the Government are spending the taxpayers' money, so it is the public who support science. As scientists, we are servants of society, not primarily servants of government. We need to keep a distance from government, which will be a very difficult act. It will be even more difficult for us to demonstrate that sometimes the public will take views that we do not share because they want to have ownership of science. I argue, therefore, that we need to retain independence of government.
As mentioned, we must recognise that science is not certain. The problem is that the Government and Ministers want black and white, another reason for our being wary of being too much in the government pocket. We must also avoid exaggeration and over-confidence. Ministers want that, and we are too ready to ascribe to it, because funds may chase that exaggeration, but we should be very wary. With all due respect to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, in some ways I regret signing the letter about genetically modified foods because, as scientists, we showed a degree of arrogance and a failure to recognise that we need to indulge in much greater dialogue.
Another reason to be careful of government is that, above all, we must beware of commercial concerns, which increasingly drive science. Not unreasonably, the Government, and future governments, will wish to stimulate commerce, because it is one way of driving universities. But it is a danger for us. One of the clear 674 reasons why GM foods received such a disastrous scientific assessment by the public was that they saw no value to them but saw the risk of commerciality.
As my friend Professor Kathy Sykes of Bristol University has said, it is important to engage in dialogue. Recently, in her inaugural lecture, she said that we should not underestimate the public—my goodness, that is right. It would be good to see more universities such as Bristol University indulge actively in that activity, helping to identify concerns and issues and trying to get proper representation of the public, not merely pressure groups.
There are certain things that we should be doing. First, we should advance ethical debate. We need to establish informal links between scientists and Members of Parliaments, as the Royal Society has already started to, which might be done in many ways. We must train scientists, who are not ready to express themselves and do not readily listen to the public. We need more university investment in engagement. Perhaps we should revisit the research assessment exercise, which inhibits many who might engage with the public from doing so. As has been said, we as scientists must understand the nature of science. So often we do not understand it; we present it as black and white.
Finally, we must listen; we must recognise that other members of the public may not share our view and that we may have to abandon some advances, even though we think that they are right to pursue. Above all, we must allow time. That is not an easy exercise and it will take considerable time to get the public to see that we have good faith in what we are doing. One thing that we are doing badly is failing to recognise where scientific problems and issues may lie in the future and getting ahead of the game.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, forgive me for focusing my remarks on medical science in my noble friend's important and timely debate. There is good and bad science. Just because a result is statistically significant does not mean that it is biologically important. Scientific evidence is different from legally admissible evidence; it is a pity that the same word is used to describe very different concepts. Good science may defend policy or explain policy change.
The peer review system for looking at results is not perfect, but it is the best that we have. Many medical journals, such as the Lancet, have fast-track quality control for important results. During the SARS outbreak, that system was evident.
How can scientists and politicians communicate in a common language? The strength of research evidence can be graded, from level I—the randomised controlled trial at best—to level IV, at weakest. Some therapies have a powerful placebo effect, which is probably mediated by the dopaminergic reward mechanisms in the human brain, and relate to the expectation of clinical benefit, explaining why people feel better when taking something although the purported effect is absent. Level II evidence is often 675 the only practical way in which to collect data. Dramatic results in uncontrolled experiments, such as the introduction of penicillin treatment in the 1940s, could be regarded as that type of evidence; it should not be discounted. Politicians often receive expert opinion, or level III evidence. Level IV evidence, the anecdote, may mislead.
Guidance can be graded from A—strong supporting evidence—to C, when the jury is out. Grades D and E highlight fair to good evidence to support rejecting something.
As well as interpreting and weighting evidence, the major challenge is how to communicate risk to politicians and thence to the public, a topic highlighted by several noble Lords. Palab Ghosh recommended the establishment of a dedicated hotline for journalists to speak directly to a scientific adviser when there was a threat to the nation's health. A fast-moving, breaking story has far more media impact than scientific papers. Websites are inadequate in a crisis because they get jammed. People trust anecdotes from friends and family and, to an extent, they trust their doctors and the media, but they mistrust messages from politicians. The trusted unscientific anecdote from family and friends may be due to chance but it forms a powerful message.
Several noble Lords have highlighted that risk information must be presented in an understandable format. A community risk scale may help to link to the power of the anecdote. In the scale, the risk magnitudes are anchored via a community cluster classification. The verbal risk scale "one per street", "one per town", "one per country" has its numeric equivalent based on the underlying probabilities. The Richter scale for earthquakes is logarithmic, so the concept of gradient is broadly understood, as it is the only scale in common use—even though the logarithmic basis is not understood by many people.
The numeric scale can be translated into a community concept as follows: one in 10 is one person in a family affected; one in 100 is one person in a street; one in 1,000 is one person in a village; one in 100,000 is one person in a large town; one in 3 million is about one person in Wales; and one in 50 million is about one person in England.
The community risk scale shows, for example, that in any year in Britain you can expect that around one person in your street will die; one person in your nearest large town will be murdered; and one person in a whole region, or five in England—one in 10 million—will be killed by lightning. Claims of a doubling of risk are beloved of reporters, headline writers and sometimes fundraisers but they help no one, as they do not contextualise the risk. Reports of cures can be singularly irresponsible; sometimes they are simply a chance variation in a spectrum, yet they are hailed as a miracle. A unified format of risk scale such as the community scale may help to convey complex messages.
Sir Kenneth Caiman described working with the media to convey information as having three phases. The first is the anticipatory phase, in which it is not 676 clear whether there is a problem. The next is looking at whether evidence about a problem has built up. Lastly, the audit phase—the one often forgotten—means looking back to ask whether the process could have been handled better. Good communication is a two-way process: it entails the giving of information, the understanding of that information and then feedback. Perhaps scientists and politicians would do well to try to develop a common language of risk.
§ 5.29 p.m.
§ Lord Oxburgh
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Greenfield for initiating this debate and for opening it in such a stimulating manner.
At the very broadest level, science policy-making has two broad strands. The Government have to consult as they see fit and propose policy. Then they have to get people, Parliament and the electorate to accept it. It is at that second stage that a whole swathe of interested parties become publicly involved— NGOs, experts of differing degrees of expertise, industrial or other lobbying groups, and, of course, radio and television. Unfortunately, what sells newspapers and draws audiences is confrontation, and the temptation to stir up a controversy, even if one does not really exist, can be irresistible.
At least in part, the ill-informed level of public debate that we sometimes experience today is the consequence of unrealistic expectations of science. Those disappointed expectations arise less from an ignorance of science than from a misunderstanding of what science can provide.
Science and mathematics are increasingly lonely in the school curriculum as subjects in which answers may be right or wrong. This may make them unattractive to study but, more seriously, it can leave pupils with an impression, which remains with them for life, that, because the tools of science are rigorous, science, if it is done properly, can give clear answers. That thought is commonly implicit in the approach of the popular media to science today. It can lead to the conclusion that, when scientists do not give clear answers, they are either devious or incompetent, which is not always the case.
Science depends on making careful observations and collating them in a systematic way. They then form a common ground on which conclusions may be based. The conclusions reflect the knowledge and experience of the person deriving them and sometimes there is plenty of room for differences of interpretation. This is the stuff of science and of scientific argument and debate. Debate often leads to consensus or near-consensus. However, such is the passion or sometimes arrogance of some members of the scientific community that, having failed to convince their peers, they appeal to the media. The crusaders appear. The media love it—I am mindful of the debate surrounding MMR and mobile phones—and it becomes a matter of black and white certainties, and adversarial debates with sound bites on the "Today" programme, and an audience that is left more worried than ever about who to believe.
677 What should be done? As noble Lords have pointed out, a great deal of the responsibility rests with the scientific community itself, but in the limited time available I shall not address that. There is a plethora of organisations seeking to improve the quality of public debate. I shall mention only two in connection with which I must declare an interest; namely, POST and SETNET. POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, is an independent advisory body with a small permanent staff and a transient population of students and post-doctoral workers. It works by producing short briefing notes in non-specialist language on technical matters that may bear on policy. They are available on the web and aim to be clear, authoritative, independent, timely and above all brief.
In my experience, parliamentarians are invariably short of time and the number of references to POST in Hansard, especially in the other place, attests to its value. POST has built a truly enviable reputation and has served as a model for similar offices in other parliaments.
At the other end of the spectrum we have to think about science in schools. A reasonable understanding of what science can and cannot do should be part of the education of all. SETNET tries to help with this. It is an organisation supported by government, industry, charities and all the main engineering and scientific institutions. It provides practical support for teachers by making possible a wide range of extra-curricular STEM activities, particularly in collaboration with local industry. In their different ways, both POST and SETNET make their contributions to improving the quality of the STEM debate, a need that is shared by all developed countries. It really amounts to recognising that, as in many walks of life, asking the right questions is more than half way to getting the right answers.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Lord Turnberg
My Lords, I am also most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for raising this important question. I must admit that I am a little sceptical about whether the answer to all our problems lies in better communication between scientists and politicians. One of the major dilemmas facing politicians is that they have to try to sell seemingly unpopular policies and, let us face it, science is not always popular. As politicians always have to have at least one eye on the ballot box, there is a calculation to be made about the impact of their policies on public opinion.
Unfortunately, there are enough divisive policies around—on the euro, the Iraq war and so forth—for governments to be wary of taking on any more. The GM crop issue may seem relatively small beer in a politician's grand scheme of things. However, at the end of the day, that approach is bad—bad for the public, for science, for UK plc and for government.
A few weeks ago, an enormous amount of misinformation and nonsense was put out by the anti-GM lobby in the wake of a report on GM crops, which 678 had briefly emerged only to sink below the surface again. In fact, anyone who actually read the report might have come to a quite different conclusion from the view that was publicised so widely. The Government's response has been somewhat muted. However, this is an example of how a vocal, well organised minority pressure group, putting out vast amounts of propaganda, can convince the public that an important scientific advance, with many implications for worldwide nutrition, is dangerous, when all the evidence gathered thus far that can stand up to critical scrutiny points to it being potentially good.
That example is one of many in which important public policy is being blocked. Nuclear fuel is probably the safest and most eco-friendly source of energy, but "nuclear anything" receives such a poor press that progress on policy in that area is so cautious as to be imperceptible. Now we are faced with anti-science groups focusing on nanotechnology and genetic research. Although there are entirely legitimate and reasoned debates to be had on all these scientific developments—about safety, benefits and utility, they are being hijacked by unreason and opinion rather than by fact and evidence.
In my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, we must have one of the most effective and knowledgeable science Ministers we have ever had. We do not need better methods of communicating with him: he is in daily contact with scientists and is doing a marvellous job, as we have heard, in getting more money for research. Perhaps we need better ways of communicating with other Ministers, but, much more importantly, scientists need to consider how best to help politicians with their dilemma of selling science policy to a sceptical public.
Other noble Lords have spoken of trust. Whenever there is a poll of public opinion about who the public trusts, politicians come next to the bottom—just above journalists. A MORI poll showed that only 23 per cent of the public trust politicians to tell the truth, and 15 per cent of the public trust journalists to tell the truth. Scientists do little better; something like 63 per cent trust them to tell the truth. Politicians and scientists need better advocates.
In medical science, I am always struck by how effective patients and their carers are as advocates for medical research. As scientific adviser to the Association of Medical Research Charities, I have attended many meetings at which scientists, politicians and patients have sat together on the platform. No matter how unused to speaking in public the patients are, they are far and away the most convincing promoters of medical research. The message is that, if we want to convince an audience, we should take along a patient. Politicians and scientists in fields other than medicine need better advocates. Perhaps, those supporting GM crops need potential beneficiaries, preferably from the third world.
Being my usual helpful self to the Minister and given my sense of the interesting question raised by the noble Baroness, I believe that scientists should seek the 679 potential beneficiaries of scientific advances to help politicians and scientists through the dilemmas of selling scientific policy.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Lord Chorley
My Lords, I come to this fascinating debate as neither a scientist nor a politician. I am sure that having a degree in natural sciences from Cambridge does not qualify me as a scientist—it certainly should not. Nor, for that matter, does being a hereditary Peer qualify me for being a politician, and I would not wish it to. On the other hand, I served on several science and technology sub-committees of your Lordships' House in the 1980s, and I am a great enthusiast for science and technology—especially the geographical sciences, social and physical—so I was tempted to speak this afternoon, albeit that I am conscious that I speak in a superior league and that much of what I wanted to say has already been gone over.
I want to talk about the dialogue between scientists and politicians, specifically about the venues, which are one of the mechanisms to which the Motion refers. I think immediately of the House itself and of the extraordinarily high quality of some of our debates, including perhaps this afternoon's. Going back a little—perhaps too far—I think especially of the memorable sequence of debates on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 1990. I think of the quality of some of the interventions, notably those of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Habgood, who was Archbishop of York and, of course, a professionally distinguished scientist in his own right. It is hard to think of another parliamentary chamber that could have brought such a range of expertise— scientific and ethical—to bear on that sensitive issue.
There is also the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which has produced a wide range of reports in the past 25 years. In the early days, it had important influence, notably in its first report, Science and Government, and it probably still has. I acknowledge the marvellous report produced by the sub-committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, Science and Society. I certainly hope that the Select Committee has influence, but I am not sufficiently au fait nowadays to know. I suggest—I address my remarks to my noble friend Lord Oxburgh—that it might be interesting to research the committee's influence and see how it has changed over the years and how it works, to see whether there are any useful lessons to be learnt.
There is also the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which is an admirable body. My noble friend Lord Oxburgh referred to it. I also draw attention, as others have done, to the invaluable work of the extra-parliamentary bodies, such as the long-established Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, and the Foundation for Science and Technology, which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, chairs so admirably. I must also mention the recent innovation of dinner discussion sessions on public policy issues at the Royal Geographical Society.
680 All those bodies directly involve scientists and civil servants, as well as parliamentarians from both Houses. They are invaluable and are an important part of the process of dialogue. However, I must raise a question. I have the impression that the rate of attendance and participation by Peers is superior to that of MPs. Having said that, I recognise that there are some notable exceptions. It was nice to see Ian Gibson standing at the Bar at the beginning of the debate. I say it with some trepidation and diffidence, but it is possible that constituency affairs tend to bear down too heavily on MPs. Perhaps, they attract a particular sort of person to becoming an MP. That may be nonsense, but it would be interesting to test the hypothesis. If there is something in it, it would underscore the importance of having a healthy proportion of independents in a reformed House. I shall not pursue that line.
That observation brings me to my final thought: do we have enough scientists in the House? Are they of the right mix? The answer to the second point is that the scientific discipline of a Member does not matter: what matters is that the scientists who come here should have time to be active in what I call the political process, in its various forms. I would be happy to see a few more scientists and, perhaps, one or two professional geographers. On that note, I had better conclude.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, like others far more expert and eloquent than I, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this important debate. My purpose is to give technology, as distinct from science, a bit of a look-in. In that context, it is said that politics is the art of the possible. A cynic might conclude that, in an age of massive technological advance, that could translate into a temptation among policy makers and politicians to see how much they can, as it were, get away with, before public consciousness catches up with what is being done in the public's name.
By their very nature, science and technology are catalysts of change. They tend to challenge society's ethical and moral boundaries. Yet, there is an identifiable sense in which public opinion about and understanding of a particular technological development or scientific discovery lags behind the establishment of the policy for it. Increasingly, a subjective approach is adopted by policy makers and politicians: that is to say that a policy objective is formulated which, in turn, drives the technological development, instead of policy being derived seamlessly and coherently from the innovation. It is almost as if research and its results—I include the process of consultation—are geared towards proving the pre-ordained policy aim, rather than informing the development of policy from its infancy and any ensuing debate about the nature of its formulation. Perhaps, that "unrealistic expectation"—to borrow the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh—can be deemed a mute witness to the autocratic approach that, many would suggest, is in tune with the age in which we live.
681 Importantly and inevitably, such an approach runs the risk of alienating the general public and provoking distrust and scepticism about the wider benefits that technological innovation can provide. It may even go some way towards explaining what the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, referred to as the hostility in the relationship between scientists and politicians. It may explain why the independence of scientists and technologists from government, to which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, referred, is so important.
By way of example, that proposition can be applied to the information and communications technology sector. No one would disagree that ICT has the potential to deliver huge benefits to society, not least in terms of law enforcement, delivery of services and so forth. Indeed, much of government policy is predicated on that basis. At the same time, a great deal of public policy is geared towards the benefit of IT to the state alone, rather than its citizenry as a whole. Perhaps the best way to express that is to say that what could be called "the ethical baseline" of IT has not been established in public policy terms.
In so far as it is simply a medium of communication—a natural progression from letter writing and the telephone and, as such, to be perceived in much the same way as those media—the right of the general public to "ownership" of it has yet to be properly quantified. Accordingly, in that semi-vacuum, the state is afforded—in many respects, has grasped—the opportunity to suborn ICT to its own ends; that is, to treat it as its plaything. The problem here is that that can, and does, have very real and very grave consequences in terms of eroding essential freedoms and civil liberties. Our debates on the RIPA and data retention orders last month exposed that.
In conclusion, I endorse the premise of the noble Baroness's Motion, and the more so if it is geared towards establishing a meaningful dialogue with the general public. To state the obvious, it is essential that policies emanating from scientific and technological discovery are workable and fit-for-purpose. But—in many respects more importantly—such policies can compromise not only the moral sense of society, but also its liberties and freedoms. That makes it all the more crucial that the policies carry the people with them and not leave them trailing in their wake.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ The Earl of Erroll
My Lords, first, I should like to thank my noble friend Lady Greenfield for the opportunity to say a few words about risk. I am on the board of POST; I should like to reinforce the comments made by my noble friend Lord Oxburgh about the excellent work it does in an area of increasing importance. Basic science is not understood by a great number of people. In the debate about antennae, many people did not realise that power decays not lineally with distance from the antenna, but as a square or a cube law. Therefore, it is better to have a great number of low-power antennae than to have one high power antenna. But I shall not go into that.
682 I shall concentrate on the perception of risk because it influences our priorities, as well as those of the media, which distorts the message. It can mean that the public ignore a perfectly sensible message because they intuitively know that the message is exaggerated, to which I shall turn later. We are regulating people's lives more; we are removing the discretion for them to make their own decisions. We think that we know better. Many regulations are based on weighing up the balance of probabilities of some harm occurring to people. I am not sure that we always look at all sides of the equation.
When I take the Tube, I am struck to see escalators boarded up for months on end and to watch poor people stagger down stairs with heavy suitcases. I do not know whether the risk is greater of people dying in a fire because work is being carried out on an escalator during the day or whether more people die through stress and heart attacks because they are struggling up and down stairs when there is no escalator. Someone should do a cost-benefit analysis on that.
It is the expression of probability that is very interesting. I have noticed three areas in particular. First, there is the expression of probability and how it is expressed; that is, relative risk and percentage terms versus natural frequencies, to which I shall turn in a moment. Secondly, there is the illusion of certainty, which is sometimes expressed. Thirdly, there is emotive language, which can influence matters greatly.
We are about to spend money on wonderful new ideas. Taking an example which falls within the IT area, we probably are about to pass laws which will allow the Government and the police to keep DNA fingerprints of everyone. First, I turn to the emotive word "fingerprints", which implies certainty. We are used to it; we think it is guaranteed. But what is the certainty of a match? I am told that it is 99.99998 per cent probable, which sounds like an absolute certainty. But that is a means of expressing a one in 6 million chance, which still sounds a certainty. But, for me, a one in 6 million chance means that there are 10 people who have a DNA match with me in the UK; there are 80 people in the European Union. I would be a little worried about whether I am the right person if that is the main evidence to prosecute me, to chase me or whatever.
Secondly, there is issue of false positives, about which people do not worry. Research was carried out in the O J Simpson trial where some of the laboratories investigated were found to do a one in 200 chance only of producing a false positive. Put like that, any other chances are outweighed altogether. Therefore, certainties must be looked at in a completely different way. Therefore, if certainties are that uncertain, will the risks of uncertainty outweigh the costs that we put into the projects?
I also want to turn to the competition for money. The poor scientists have to exaggerate in order to obtain funding to pay bills and to keep their families happy because they have to compete for money against medical treatments, research and so forth. It is often said that "such and such kills". I notice that 683 around 650,000 people die in the UK every year. Over the long term, that percentage will stay about the same. Otherwise, the population will live longer and longer; that cannot go on ad infinitum. The number of people who die each year will stay roughly the same.
What can be tampered with is the age profile and the cause of death. As my noble friend Lady Finlay pointed out, using relative risk to establish a case is dangerous when competing for money. One might say that there is a 25 per cent reduction in deaths from something. But if there are only four deaths in 100,000 people, saving one person or lengthening their life for a short period at a huge cost may not be cost effective. It may be better to apply money elsewhere.
By nature, I am a risk taker; I have always been like that. Therefore, I prefer to enjoy myself more now and to die younger. That is my personal choice. I eat chocolate; it is full of vitamins and energy. I eat crisps; they keep me awake on long car journeys and I enjoy them as a snack. 1 am married to a chain smoker who would probably die of stress if she gave up—or kill me in fury or something like that. We ate beef throughout the BSE outbreak because the epidemiology did not suggest that we would die instantly, which has been well proven.
I could go on to a great number of other matters, but I was cheered up when I looked at the report,Securing Good Health for the Whole Population. In fact, the main reason why I shall not live to the age of 75 is "others", which is 33 per cent of the reason why my life will be shorter. It is not due to CHD or anything else.
To conclude, a complex network of people who are making individual judgments cannot be controlled by the use of the processes and rules applied to simple systems and we should not expect to predict the outcome. It is important to realise that. We must drop over-regulation, stop exaggerating dangers and allow some creativity to flourish.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Lord Mitchell
My Lords, I, too, must express my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for introducing the debate. The subject is clear; that is, to examine the mechanisms to improve communication between scientists and politicians with a view to a better understanding of scientific policies. We are privileged that in the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, we have our own living mechanism. The noble Baroness, through her books, her television appearances and, most of all, her brilliant work at the Royal Institution, has done much to give the general public a much better understanding of science.
Since he is in his place, I must also say the same about the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who also captivates the nation with his gripping television programmes. We in this House and the scientific community in general must count ourselves lucky to have such first-class communicators.
Without being too party political, it is fair to say that this Government are well on track to restoring the country's connection to science. For too many years, governments of both parties have relegated science to 684 the bottom of the pile, with the inevitable results; that is, lack of funding, poor salaries and, in particular, lack of vision. For many years, the result was the infamous brain drain. Scientists left for more sympathetic climes, particularly the United States. It is somewhat reassuring that "brain drain" is an expression that one hears less and less. I am not saying that everything in the garden is rosy, but simply that it is getting better.
Today, in conjunction with the regional development authorities, funding is going into science-based industries. The RDAs have taken the lead in ensuring that their regions are encouraging state-of-the art development. Again, it is early days, but the pointers are all in the right direction. Companies— particularly small enterprises—are being encouraged to invest in research and development through the availability of attractive tax incentives. Today, our largest companies—I cite Pharmaceuticals, chemicals, aerospace and petrochemicals—are up there with the world's best.
Big science has also been reinvigorated. Once again, our scientists are able to pursue conceptual science at the very frontiers of knowledge. Particle science, astrophysics and investigation into the nature of matter are areas which for many years have been all but denied to us due to the short-sightedness of all governments. We may not be the world-beaters in all spheres, but the UK is certainly back in business. For this, much of the credit must go to my noble friend the Minister on the Front Bench who, as others have said, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Technology, has championed this country's scientific excellence.
The essence of this debate is about communication between scientists and politicians and there are many ways in which such communication can take place. Other noble Lords have referred to committees and other formal structures. I should like to consider communication more in terms of being an informal and, indeed, a social activity. In the venture capital community, the benefits of the informal gathering are well known. I am associated with an organisation called the Chemistry Club. It is a monthly gathering of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and high technology businessmen with, sometimes, the odd Secretary of State thrown in. The venue is a first-class restaurant where the wine is good and the food excellent. The "chemistry" describes how people meet people. The list of attendees is circulated prior to the meeting and each person indicates whom he or she wants to meet. As the evening moves on, the staff make sure that everyone is networked. Such is the way of business: meeting, talking and deciding whether there is anything to pursue. It is my guess that many new alliances are formed on such occasions.
So why not have the same kind of arrangement for scientists to meet politicians and businessmen? Once we get people talking, anything might happen, and certainly such informal meetings allow the juices to flow and ideas to be generated. Most of all, relationships are formed.
685 Much has been written about the excellent review published last week by Richard Lambert. In examining the collaborative relationship between universities and business, Mr Lambert and his committee have painted a picture that is in certain parts upbeat, but in others highlights our lack of achievement, in particular in the area of research and development. However, in my opinion, the most telling point he made is that American universities now acknowledge that their reason for engaging in technology transfer is to serve the public good. For me, that puts it all into perspective: universities with their feet on the ground, involved in their communities and with local business. Bringing public good from the ivory tower into the local community strikes me as a noble cause.
I am currently chairing an investigation on behalf of the Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships' House. We are looking at international treaties which have a high scientific component, concentrating in particular on climate control, biodiversity, whaling, fisheries and the Antarctic and, of course, referring to the treaties and protocols that govern those areas. We are looking at the process of treaties and something that is of specific interest to me: what makes some treaties work and others fail? At this stage we are still making calls for evidence, but we hope to submit our report to your Lordships' House in the early summer. We shall do our best to ensure that our conclusions are clearly communicated to the politicians.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for introducing this extraordinarily interesting debate. I should also declare my interests as a vice-president of the Save British Science society, as a long-term academic in the area of science policy and as a continuing Visiting Fellow of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex.
I found the debate very interesting because its focus is, on the one hand, on communication between scientists and politicians, while on the other hand it seeks to address the public understanding not of science itself, but of scientific policies. As a result, I was not quite sure what would be the focus of the debate. In the event, the debate has concentrated on the interaction between scientists and the public while, in a sense, politicians have come out as the piggies in the middle. I agree very much with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord May, that science does not make choices; it merely sets the stage on which Ministers can make those choices.
Turning to the politicians, Ministers are the people who ultimately have to take decisions and make the choices, and they are advised by a plethora of scientific advisers. They are influenced by pressure groups and the general public. My noble friend Lord Taverne observed that the public are very much influenced by the media, although it is notable that none of the media has been present during this debate.
686 The subject of the public understanding of science has come to the fore over the past 10 years or so, in part because—others may hold different views—today science is pushing into the centre many of the issues which, in earlier times, were at the periphery. They were regarded as being ethical issues on which small groups of experts would take a view, but which were not centre stage. Today, however, when we consider issues such as genetic engineering, then we must acknowledge that science turns almost into God; perhaps we shall be able to create people. Therefore scientific issues such as genetic manipulation, in vitro fertilisation and stem cell research have become central questions of scientific policy.
Here I echo the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who complimented the quality of debate that takes place on such issues in this House. I was not here in the 1980s when the questions surrounding in vitro fertilisation were considered. The guidelines that emerged from those debates, overseen by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, set this country above others in this area. However, I was here for our electric debate on stem cell research. It marked a highlight of my five years in this House.
I am interested in two different aspects of the question of making scientific policy. First, we must address the question of policy making with regard to scientific issues. Here I refer to policies on foot and mouth disease, BSE, in vitro fertilisation and stem cell research. However, the second aspect is one just mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, in his contribution: the Government's policies with regard to the promotion of science; that is, the policies pursued by the Government in order to promote science and technology because of the links between science, technology and innovation and the further link between innovation and competitiveness that was considered in the Lambert report. I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, that it is an excellent report, although I was slightly depressed about the degree to which our media have portrayed it as being, once again, a question of scientists having to go out and sell their ideas to entrepreneurs, whereas what Richard Lambert seeks to do in his report is to put his finger on the failure of industrialists to pick up and develop those ideas.
I would argue, as did the noble Lords, Lord Jenkin and Lord Waldegrave, that there is no lack of mechanisms for communication between scientists and politicians. As regards scientific policy making, we have a large number of advisory committees of one kind or another—in the main where scientists advise Ministers. Similarly, Parliament is served by parliamentary scientific committees, the Foundation for Science and Technology, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology—POST—the Royal Society and the Royal Institution, among others. A plethora of organisations seeks to influence politics and politicians. However, I would pose the question of whether that dialogue is getting through.
Let us look at who is in the Chamber today. The noble Lords present comprise largely scientists talking to scientists. One feature that I have noticed in 687 attending the Foundation for Science and Technology, which I much enjoy, or the parliamentary scientific committee, is that there are few politicians there. There are quite a large number of scientific politicians in this House-many of whom are Cross-Benchers and would not say that they were politicians—but relatively few Members of Parliament.
In science policy, we have developed a term, which is not very attractive but picks up what I was saying about the Lambert report. It is called the "absorptive capacity". One problem that we have with British industry is that, because it does not do R&D, it does not employ scientists and engineers, so there is nobody in-house who can understand what is going on and translate it into useful things to do. The industry has to rely on outside experts, who do not always understand what is going on inside. It is a question whether there are receptors for the information as well as people who create that information. One problem is that we lack, particularly within Parliament, the receptors for that information. There are Select Committees, to whose work I pay great tribute, but does that Select Committee advice get through? Are there enough people within the broad area of government—not only Ministers and parliamentarians, but within the Civil Service?
An issue that worries me a little is the way in which we have run down the scientific Civil Service. I quote a paragraph from the cross-cutting report that appeared before the CSR last March. The report stated:In order to discharge their function adequately, Chief Scientific Advisers will need appropriate support from scientifically qualified staff. In the period until the 1980s when departments ran their own laboratories, they used those laboratories as a supply of scientific talent to meet their needs for scientific expertise. Most departments no longer run their own dedicated research organisations, and rely on outsiders for this function. Consequently they have lost an important source of supply of experienced scientific talent. And little effort is now made to take a systemic view on the areas of policy that need scientific input, or the critical mass of scientists needed at the science/policy interface".That report picked up the criticisms that came through from the Phillips report on BSE and were echoed in his comments on the foot and mouth disease.
What do we want to do? First, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and others did, I suggest that we need to consider science education. Great advances have been made in science for primary schools, but there is still a very real problem about science in secondary schools—with the narrowness of the A-level curriculum and the need to broaden it, moving with Tomlinson to something like the international baccalaureate.
Secondly, I echo totally the need for open and ready consultation, debate and dialogue with everyone. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave. We need an open and clear trail of how decisions are made. Freedom of information is a very important aspect of getting the debate out into the public and getting the public to understand and participate in it.
Thirdly, I wonder why we do not want there to be more interchange between civil servants and academia, in particular. I know that we are bringing 688 people in at chief scientific adviser level, but I should like there to be much more interchange at lower levels. Only when someone spends two to three years in a position does he actually influence decisions and understand how the organisation works; that person needs to influence the organisation as well as saying which decisions should be made.
Lastly, I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and to the Minister for Science, because we have seen great advances in developments and thinking about science, technology and innovation from this Government. However, I am extremely worried at the discontinuity between the thinking taking place about universities between the DfES and the Higher Education Funding Council, with its suggestions of concentration of research. In that case, the bodies did not listen to the scientists at all, whereas, in POST, people have been listening to them. That is extremely dangerous for the Government and I suggest that they look hard at it.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for having initiated this important debate. Certainly, her impressive scientific background qualifies her very well to speak on this subject. That is the first point that I should like to make. In your Lordships' House, on all sides, we have a wealth of scientific expertise, which has been on show today. Indeed, among our Members there is a vast amount of knowledge and experience on every conceivable subject. Many of them have been appointed to this House for life because of the contributions that they have made to the public benefit in their chosen fields. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Chan, and my noble friend Lord Waldegrave said—that there is room still for more scientists.
I agree with the theme of the debate proposed by the noble Baroness—namely, that communication between politicians and scientists could and should be improved. In both Houses, there is a wide range of scientific interests. According to the most recent edition of Vacher's Parliamentary Companion, there are seven categories of scientific interests among Members and, within those seven categories, there are no fewer than 76 sub-categories. They cover every subject from astronomy to water, including some 42 devoted to medicine alone.
Personally, I do not believe that the problem lies— or entirely lies—in a lack of communication between scientists and parliamentarians. My postbag contains an endless supply of briefing notes, information sheets, lobbying data and invitations to attend this or that conference or meeting. I am certain that many of your Lordships, especially those with sufficient interest in scientific subjects to take part in today's debate, have the same experience.
The major problem that the scientific community has in getting a sympathetic hearing lies in ignorance— ignorance among some lay Members of both Houses but, more particularly, ignorance and superstitious prejudice among members of the public. The noble 689 Lord, Lord May, the distinguished President of the Royal Society, writing in an edition of the Parliamentary Monitor, said that science,has escaped from the laboratory into public consciousness".The noble Lord, Lord Winston, speaking in the vivisection debate on 17th October referred to scientists',complacent belief that the mere communication of science… is adequate to persuade the public of what we are doing".—[Official Report, 17/10/03; col. 1195.]To his credit, the noble Lord confessed to his own shortcomings in that respect, although I do not believe that anyone would agree, having seen him on the television. Today he commented on the need for scientists to engage in a dialogue with the public. I believe that most of us would agree with that.
The noble Lord, Lord May, also said in his article that,scientific issues are increasingly impinging on public debate".That is perfectly true, but that public debate often generates more heat than light, to use a well worn cliche. That cannot be entirely blamed on the failure of scientists to communicate with the public adequately—one of the problems highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Winston. It also cannot entirely be blamed on plain ignorance by non-scientific members of the public.
There are a number of sources of positive misinformation or prejudiced propagandising by those with particular axes to grind. For example— without my expressing a personal view on the subject—the public's antipathy to GM foods can clearly be attributed, to a major extent, to a vociferous campaign in parts of the media, which emotively calls them "Frankenstein foods". I note with interest what the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said on that point.
In the debate on vivisection, reference was made to the terroristic threats against Huntingdon Life Sciences and those who provide them with goods and services, including banking. As the noble Lady, Baroness Warnock, pointed out:It might come as a surprise to some of the public if they could be made to understand that many of the animals used suffer nothing".— [Official Report, 17/10/03; Col 1201.]The fact is that none of those who are vigorously opposed to necessary experiments on animals, and even those who have some vague doubts about them, possibly due to a lot of the black propaganda, ever seem to hesitate to accept the medication and surgical procedures that result from them.
That debate, although on a different topic to the present one, highlighted the same problem that we are discussing today. As my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts reminded the House, your Lordships' report on science and technology in 2002 complained that, "there is a crisis of trust". The noble Lord, Lord May, repeated that today, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross.
The reason for that can partially be found in, for example, the way in which the government of the day tried to sweep the BSE crisis under the carpet, probably at the behest of the penny-pinchers at the 690 Treasury, until they were forced to come clean. The same applied to the present Government when they tried to conceal the extent of the foot and mouth crisis, no doubt with the same puppeteers pulling the purse strings. I mention at this point the reference made by my noble friend Lord Waldegrave to the excellent work of the Science Museum and its influence, which might be the reason for its problems.
To quote again my noble friend Lord Hodgson, these days,people are generally more questioning of authority; some Government departments and institutions still operate too much under a culture of secrecy … That all contributes to creating a public suspicion of science and scientists".Another strong example of that is the controversy surrounding the MMR inoculations. Even the fact that Dr Murch, whose premature report on the vaccines caused that controversy, has now recanted has not allayed public concern. Seemingly, nothing that government scientists say now can overcome the objection of some parents.
On scientific matters, the Government must unequivocally and truthfully clarify the scientific evidence and separate that from the political issues on which they are entitled by their mandate to make a policy decision. The question of the relationship between scientists and politicians is not merely one of each understanding the other and getting the public to understand the issues as well. It is also a matter of the Government understanding their obligation to ensure that British scientific endeavours are fully and effectively exploited for the benefit of British industry and the British economy.
In 1963, Harold Wilson spoke to the Labour Party conference about restating socialism in the white heat of technological revolution. However, when he came to power the following year, matters remained much as they had been before and they have continued in the same way under successive governments of every hue. British scientific and technological discoveries are exported abroad for exploitation because of lack of government support here. We can all recall what happened to the hovercraft, for example.
While the DTI, the department that I shadow in this House, supports the Engineering and Technology Board, my honourable friend the Member for Lichfield pointed out in the same interesting issue of the Parliamentary Monitor that Britain has been left to follow the lead of the USA and Japan in investment and exploitation of new products. The Government's tax credits for small and medium-sized companies involved in research and development have had a disappointing take-up rate because, as Ernst & Young suggests, application for the allowances is such a complicated process.
My honourable friend's article is a powerful argument in support of nanotechnology, a subject of which many parliamentarians may have been blissfully unaware, despite our excellent debate on the subject, instigated by my noble friend Lord Wade of Chorlton on 14th March, when he asked this House to take note of the Science and Technology Select Committee's report, Chips With Everything.
691 As all your Lordships taking part in this debate know, nanotechnology is the manufacture of materials from minute components. As my honourable friend wrote in his article, it has,huge consequences for the environment, medicine, warfare, industry and society … and offers a potentially cleaner environment, cleaner products and cleaner processes".Despite an investment of £28 million at Imperial College over six years, and the announcement of some further £90 million over six years announced by the Government in July, Mark Welland, Professor of Nanotechnology at Cambridge warns that the United Kingdom risks falling behind if it does not, with government and industrial assistance, adopt the right strategy. What is at stake is a global market of some £148 billion by 2010. That is just seven years away. The Labour chairman of the Science and Technology Committee in the other place complained that the Government's support is "minuscule".
The article by the noble Lord, Lord May, pointed out that scientific advancement is impeded also by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy, and it warned that the EU directive on good clinical practice could have serious implications for cancer patients and research in the United Kingdom as it effectively stops publicly funded trials
Similarly, although the United Kingdom Parliament has voted, after extensive public debate, to allow research on human embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning, a shabby procedural manoeuvre in the European Parliament puts that at risk. It seems that our scientists will have to improve their PR with the European Parliament and the Commission, as well as with the United Kingdom Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and many elements of the media.
Better communication between politicians and scientists must have the effect, first, of ensuring that politicians are better informed about issues and developments in the world of science, uninfluenced by ill informed and sometimes Luddite media campaigns.
Secondly, we must ensure that, since our industrial base is fast disappearing overseas, the Government, who are the only true source of the vast funds needed, give the necessary support to our wide pool of scientific talent to enable them to produce the new technologies and the discoveries that will be the basis of this country's economy in the future.
All noble Lords here today agree that we could not have a better advocate for that than our Science Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. Perhaps it is the time for Harold Wilson's white heat of technological revolution to arrive at long last—just 40 years after he invented the phrase.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)
My Lords, 1 too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for raising this important subject, which is an issue of major concern to the Government. 1 am also pleased to see that so many 692 noble Lords have participated in the debate, which does illustrate the interest in science and technology in this House.
Since taking office in 1997, the Government have placed research and innovation at the heart of their policies for securing our nation's future. We have put substantial extra funds into the science and engineering base, so that the science budget, which was £1.3 billion when we entered office, will be £3 billion by 2005–06. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that that is not our money, but that of the taxpayer. However, where politicians put their money illustrates the values that they hold and the importance that they attach to subjects. We can therefore claim that we have demonstrated how seriously we take science and technology in our society.
However, there is no doubt that if we are to reap the benefits of this extra investment, the public's positive engagement and continuing support are vital. The Prime Minister said in his unprecedented address at the Royal Society last year:Science is posing hard questions of moral judgement and of practical concern, which if addressed in the wrong way, can lead to prejudice against science which I believe would be hugely damaging. As a result, the benefits of science will only be exploited through a renewed compact between science and society, based on a proper understanding of what science is trying to achieve".In responding to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, I shall make three initial points. First, if we are to improve the dialogue between scientists and politicians, it is essential that each side understands the other better. I agree strongly with my noble friend Lady Jay on that. It is important that politicians understand the basis of scientific method and that scientists have often to work with a great deal of uncertainty and cannot give instant answers. It is equally important that scientists understand that politicians have to make decisions in response to current and urgent problems and cannot always wait for a 10-year study and that it is not always easy to give lengthy and technical explanations on the "Today" programme, assuming that one is allowed to give any explanation at all. Neither side has a monopoly of wisdom, objectivity or foresight.
Secondly, in this area as in many others, I doubt that most people want to become engaged in lengthy debates with experts. Rather what the public wants, I think, is to know that issues such as the ethical, health and environmental impacts of new technologies are properly considered by scientists, regulatory and ethical experts and by representatives of the public. They want such debates to take place in a transparent way, and to be able to take part in them if they so desire. I agree very strongly with the noble Lord, Lord May, and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, that transparency and dialogue are absolutely critical. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that ethical debate is a key part of these issues.
Thirdly—again, in this area as in many others—I think the need is not for more initiatives but rather to make our current channels of communication and 693 forums for debate work better. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, that we do not want to have new initiatives. If we want to do anything, we want to put better tyres on the wheels, and certainly not to have more institutions. I agree with him also that the Science Museum is a wonderful institution. I am sure that, in the spending review 2004, the Treasury will listen to his words on funding.
Finally on these matters, I should like to say a few words about the state of British science and public opinion. It is simply not true that there is no communication between scientists, engineers and the Government. We have the Council for Science and Technology which, if it wants, has direct access to the Prime Minister. We also have the Chief Scientific Adviser, who still reports directly to the Prime Minister and frequently sees him. We are making certain that each department has a chief scientific adviser who is involved in top policy decision-making. Now, the Chief Scientific Adviser is involved in the appointment of the chief scientific advisers of departments, to ensure that we have high-level people in those positions.
It is not necessarily true that we have no scientists in Parliament; in fact, 64 MPs have a first degree in science. The percentage of MPs with a first degree in science and technology is therefore probably slightly higher than that for the general population. I also do not think that it is true that there is a crisis in British science or in the British public's view of science. All the surveys show that although the British public remain on the whole very supportive and enthusiastic about science, they have concerns about particular technologies and particular areas. To characterise that as the British public's concern about science is to ignore their real attitude, which is to be generally positive about science while having concerns about particular areas. We need to address those areas.
I also do not accept that morale among British scientists is very low. There is clearly a problem in the field of plant science. However, I visit many research establishments and, on the whole, I think that scientists' morale is currently fairly high. The B-plus or A-minus which the noble Lord, Lord May, gave the Government's science policy was extraordinarily encouraging. I have never heard him give anyone more than that, but I have heard him give many people a much lower grade. I therefore take it as a sign of encouragement.
We used to deal with these considerations under the policy heading of "the public understanding of science". However, since the groundbreaking report published in February 2000 by your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology, our thinking and approach have shifted from that deficit model to one of positive engagement. I think that scientists need to be engaged in three equally important areas: with government, with politicians and with the general public. I shall deal first with the Government.
We are committed to the principle that policies should, wherever practical, be evidence-based. We want, therefore, to have access to the relevant scientific 694 advice and how to use that advice effectively in arriving at policy decisions. That is particularly important where there is significant scientific uncertainty, where there is a range of scientific opinion and where there are potentially significant implications for sensitive areas of public policy. In recent years we have acted systematically to put that principle into action. Nevertheless, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, that a great deal has happened in this area since the BSE problem.
Three key documents—the cross-cutting review of science and technology, the Guidelines 2000: Scientific advice and policy making and the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees—set out a number of recommendations which departments are expected to follow in managing their research to underpin policy making, as well as the rules which should apply to committees that advise government on science issues. I think that we have made good progress in implementing those recommendations. We have also set up the OST science review, a rolling programme of external scrutiny and benchmarking of the ways in which government departments use science and manage research. So, in a sense, we will be peer reviewing the quality of scientific advice given to departments and how they make use of that advice.
Those are not short-term initiatives; they will have a significant impact on the quality of policy making and decision making in both the long and short term. In addition, there is significant "horizon scanning" within government departments, especially the OST's Foresight programme which actively engages with scientists and other stakeholders to identify areas of cutting-edge science that will impact on society and on social problems where science can make a major contribution to solving them.
Parliament has also long recognised the need to engage with science and scientists and has actively sought ways to enable that to happen. The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee was established back in 1939. More recently, in 2001, Parliament awarded permanent funding to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. POST is an outstanding organisation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, that it does an excellent job. I would encourage all parliamentarians to make good use of POST and to work with it in considering how to strengthen the communication between scientists and politicians.
Of course, parliamentarians also have opportunities to engage with scientists through their everyday work. The Science and Technology Committees in both Houses are very active, and most other committees occasionally explore issues related to science. Similarly, many all-party groups are interested in science-based issues.
It is also important that scientists engage with the public. We know that most people get most of their information about science and technology through the media. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, is to be congratulated on setting up the Science Media Centre, which has been extremely successful in giving the media fast and easy access to the best information when science hits the headlines.
695 It is absolutely key to the public debate that there are forums for debate outside Parliament which can engage the public and advise the Government. That is why we set up the Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, which are doing extremely useful work in controversial areas. It is not simply a case of scientists being prepared to engage in debate. Scientists must recognise that people have valid ethical, health and environmental issues with emerging technologies and should be prepared constructively to engage with the public on those issues.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg. This is not simply a question of communication; there are real issues here. However, when it comes to the issue of nuclear energy, it is simply not credible to say that the technology has no environmental impact. Clearly it does. Clearly, that has to be an area of concern. We need to come to grips with the whole issue of nuclear waste and how it is treated before we can say to the public, "This technology is entirely beneficial".
If there is one thing we have learnt in recent years, it is that we should not wait for concerns to become deeply rooted, leading to polarised and potentially destructive encounters between science and society. We need to think about these ethical, health and environmental issues upstream and to move proactively to involve the public in dialogue, to discuss the risks and benefits and respond to concerns.
The groundbreaking work of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, in the early days of the science and technology of human fertilisation and embryology provides us with a useful precedent. UK law on embryo research has evolved over 20 years of public and parliamentary debate, beginning with the committee of inquiry that she chaired in 1982.
The UK now has one of the most comprehensive schemes of regulation in the world—I think that it is one of the best—and the careful and thoughtful approach taken over this lengthy period has enabled us to introduce the necessary regulatory change to enable stem cell research to go ahead. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that that was one of the cases where we got it right. I also agree with her that the debates we had in this House were among the finest that I have heard here.
It was with these lessons in mind that I recently commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at whether nanotechnology raised any ethical, health or environmental issues which are not covered by current regulations, and whether, therefore, we need to introduce new regulations. I say in answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that in this case we are seeking to get ahead of the public debate, to look ahead and to discuss these issues before they become ones which really affect public opinion.
We are doing exactly the same thing in other areas of the Foresight Programme. We have recently had a Foresight Programme on cognitive systems which was highly successful. Out of that has come a very clear perception that over the next 10 to 20 years basic brain 696 research will not only be an enormously exciting area of research but will also raise many considerations which, if not handled properly, could lead to a reaction on the part of the public.
As regards the research that is being carried out by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, a number of aspects have been built into the study in order to engage the general public, and the working group will include those with an understanding of ethical, social, consumer and regulatory issues, as well as scientists and engineers.
I turn to some of the issues that have been raised during the debate and which it is extremely important to consider. The question of risk was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jay and Lady Finlay, the noble Lord, Lord Stone, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll. In contradiction to what many people believe, I do not believe that the public do not understand probabilities of risk. My experience is that the public understand that very well. They have many dealings with risk during their lives. They can judge risks very well. However, their approach to risk is strongly influenced by a number of values and beliefs. The first is whether or not they can choose to accept the risk—a point made strongly by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll. People may climb mountains. They know that that is very risky but it is their choice as opposed to being forced to accept something without having any say in the matter. Secondly, they always consider very carefully the benefits and risks of technological developments. Problems arise when the public do not consider that the benefits outweigh the risks involved. There is no problem with medical biotechnology because people see substantial benefits arising from it. The same is true of mobile telephones, even though some people rightly think that you cannot rule out risk totally in that regard. However, people have choice in the matter and regard mobile telephones as conferring major benefits. A third consideration is always whether government can do anything about a matter. If people consider that government can reduce the risk and are not doing so, not unnaturally they consider that action should be taken. We need always to put risk in that context.
The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, asked about the Government's position on science. As I say, I think that the Government have made very clear their position on science. Professor David King wrote in an article in the Guardian that it has always been made clear that the Government are neither pro nor anti-GM crops. He referred not to plant science but to GM crops, which is an application of science. He went on to say that decisions would be made on a sound scientific basis. That is the most important issue in the article.
I agree, however, with the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that we must resist the idea that science can be treated simply on a democratic basis. I think that it is wrong to start trying to make decisions about whether a technology is good or bad. What government can rightly do is ask whether there are ethical, health, safety or environmental considerations regarding new technology. However, it should be left to individuals to make up their minds whether they want to accept a particular technology once 697 those regulatory considerations have been taken into account. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that for government to try to take decisions about whether a technology is good or bad—where there are no ethical, health or environmental considerations—is, indeed, an infringement of the liberty of both the person discovering it and the person who makes use of it.
I was asked where the department of science and technology should be located in government. Governments across the world consider that issue continuously. We in this country have tried linking that department to education, which is one solution. We have had it in the Cabinet Office, which is another solution. It is now linked to the Department of Trade and Industry. I do not consider that that is overwhelmingly the best place in which to locate it, but it is not at all clear that any of the others are better. Perhaps in the UK's situation, where we have an outstanding science base—therefore, it is not necessary to link it so strongly with the Department for Education—but where we have a major problem of technology transfer, it makes sense to locate it alongside the Department of Trade and Industry. However, as I say, governments around the world change their mind on the matter. Probably the thing to do is not to keep changing one's mind but to keep the department where it is.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the Chief Scientific Adviser still reports to the Prime Minister and played a major role in dealing with the foot and mouth disease crisis. I do not think that it would have made any difference to the speed with which he was brought in to deal with that whether he was located in the Cabinet Office or in the Department of Trade and Industry.
I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester that I agree very strongly with him that we should celebrate science. We should celebrate the excitement and the wonder of science as well as the benefits that it can bring to our society. The more one learns about science, the more one wonders at the extraordinary way in which our world was created rather than the opposite.
I always have a problem with alternative medicines. People want alternative medicines that are deemed to have scientific validity. However, if they have scientific validity, they are no longer alternative medicines; they are just plain medicines. We can, of course, do much to improve the efficacy of drugs, which is one of the issues that will emerge from the human genome project as we begin to understand more about that.
I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, that we need to give our less research-intensive universities a clear mission with applied research as the fundamental part of that. 1 agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, that knowledge transfer is not about the funding of universities; it is simply now one of the major tasks of universities in a knowledge-driven economy and society. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about the need to raise the level of scientific talent in departments. The cross-cutting review's comments on 698 that were extremely good—I say that partly because I wrote them. It is now firmly part of the responsibilities of the Chief Scientific Adviser that he raises the level of scientific talent in the Civil Service.
I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that it is important to get a better link between the Office of Science and Technology and DfES regarding the funding of universities. The Office of Science and Technology, through the research councils, has a major stake in that. I chair a Joint Committee which is considering how we respond to our consultations on the RAE, sustainability research and, indeed, knowledge transfer. Clearly, what the two departments do interacts very strongly in those areas.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, that we are now beginning to make progress on getting knowledge transfer right. We are now beginning to see a cultural change in the universities, as can be seen from the number of spin-offs, licences and patents. If we look back at the Harold Wilson speech on the white heat of technology, it is remarkable that that speech contained nothing about market needs, consumers or any other aspect of connecting science with the market, which is, of course, what innovation is about. We shall shortly produce an innovation report— indeed, this month. That will go into the question of how we raise our level of innovation, which is of course of critical importance in the new global economy, in which we have to compete with the emerging economies with their lower wages.
I hope that we are also getting our policy on nanotechnology right. It is a typical British story. We were among the first in the field, and indeed had a DTI programme with the National Physical Laboratory, which I think ran from 1986 to 1996. At that point— exactly the point at which every other country woke up to the importance of the subject—we said, "We've done nanotechnology", and stopped the programme. We have had a report recently that I asked for from the director-general of the research council about what our strategy should be. and we are now implementing it.
All of us—politicians, scientists, the public—have a role to play if we are to create that "renewed compact" to which the Prime Minister referred. It is clear from the debate that scientists now have great enthusiasm to engage with the public, and we are working very hard to ensure that the channels exist for them to do so effectively and in ways that will raise people's confidence that the important advances taking place in science and technology will deliver major benefits to them.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Baroness Greenfield
My Lords, I would not presume to add anything further to the diverse insights and ideas that we have heard from so many noble Lords, representing as they do such a diverse range of expertise. Nor could I attempt to add anything substantive to the excellent winding-up speeches of the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury. Indeed, I add my 699 voice to those of many noble Lords this evening in expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, for all that he is doing as Science Minister for British science and British scientists.
Someone once said that for every complex problem there is always a simple answer, and that it is always wrong. Tonight, we have seen just how complex, diverse and, above all. important the issues that we have debated are. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.