ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

18 March 2002


Recently Sir John Krebs' Food Standards Agency tried to claim concern over GM was fading against other health and food related issues such as BSE. Not so, according to a recent survey commissioned for the Royal Society. This shows people are most concerned about:

bioweapons (74% of respondents)
climate change (70%)
genetic modification of food and animals (60%)
BSE - new variant CJD (55%)
nuclear power (53%)
medical research on animals (46%)
xenotransplantation (46%)
health problems associated with mobile phones (43%)
gene therapy (40%)
MMR triple childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (37%) stem cell research (28%).

In addition: "Most people say that commercial pressures dominate the funding of scientific research (55%) and that the public should have more influence in the type of research done (53%)."

1. Commercial pressures test public trust in science
2. Public relations disaster for UK science: Will it end?


1. Commercial pressures test public trust in science

5 March 2002 18:00 GMT
by Bill O'Neill, BioMedNet News

Nearly three out of four people are worried about bioweapons (74% of respondents) and climate change (70%), reveals the survey commissioned by the Royal Society to launch its first National Forum for Science, a day-long meeting to discuss how to take the public's concerns about science more seriously.

"The two big issues, biological weapons and global warming, have received a lot of media attention and are genuinely frightening issues," noted Paul Nurse, joint director-general of Cancer Research UK, Nobel laureate, and chair of the Royal Society's Science in Society initiative.

"It also probably worries the public when politicians like the US President do not take the scientific evidence over global warming seriously," he added.

More than one in two people fear the genetic modification of food and animals (60%), the incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and its human derivative, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (55%), and the use of nuclear power (53%), found the survey. The results were collated over the telephone in mid-February from 1,001 adults older than 16 across Britain and weighted to the national population profile.

Other issues of concern are medical research on animals (46%), xenotransplantation (46%), health problems associated with mobile phones (43%), gene therapy (40%), the MMR triple childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (37%), and stem cell research (28%).

"Genetic modification, BSE/CJD and nuclear power are all ones which have shaken public confidence in the scientific advice coming out of government," noted Nurse. "Surprisingly, the MMR vaccine did not seem to be of such major concern," he added.

The survey also tried to gauge the public's attitude to the funding, selection, and reporting of research.

Most people say that commercial pressures dominate the funding of scientific research (55%) and that the public should have more influence in the type of research done (53%).

"Because of the high publicity given to commercially funded research especially when new venture capital is being raised, the public probably underestimates how much scientific research is actually carried out in the UK by independent university scientists," suggests Nurse.

"Clearly there is a need for scientists to explain more clearly to the public how science is funded and regulated, and for a greater dialogue between scientists and the public," he noted.

On the reporting of science, 47% of respondents felt the media did not present issues responsibly against 39% who felt it did. Nurse suggests that newspaper editors should keep their science correspondents more involved when stories move up the political agenda.

Alongside Nurse on the forum's panel tomorrow to launch the question "Do we trust today's scientists?" will be novelist Fay Weldon, environmental campaigner Charles Secrett, and the government's chief scientist, David King.


2. Public relations disaster for UK science: Will it end?

12 March 2002 GMT
by Bella Starling, BioMedNet News

BSE. Foot and mouth disease. Anthrax in the US. Vaccine hazards. GM foods. Should the British public have any good reason to trust scientists this year? Or is it politicians they should mistrust? Is there any way to increase public trust of science?

UK chief scientific advisor David King, who says he is "in the business of recovering public confidence in science and policy-makers," thinks there is. Especially in the worrisome climate after September 11, he said, "science can provide a route forward."

The UK government is now beginning a major review of the impact of science on all political departments, he announced last week, at the first National Forum for Science, which took place at the Royal Society in London. Scientists and politicians have also begun working together to develop contingency plans to deal with bioterrorism, he revealed.

But will this bring about any meaningful change in the way the UK and its people grapple with anxieties about science and public policy? At the forum, environmentalists confronted politicians, who cast blame on scientists, who criticized actions of the government (as did members of the general public) whose representatives pointed a finger at the media.

Curiously, the entire event itself was a demonstration of the "very Anglo-Saxon behavior" that Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, observes whenever the UK confronts an issue involving science. "One proposition is met by an opposing proposition, leading to a fight and ignoring the public," Secrett elaborated. "This leads to bad decision-making, as opposing parties are pushed to extremes."

A more equal and meaningful public engagement in science issues will not happen without a culture change, he concluded. Not surprisingly, no such changes were evident by the end of the forum. But some good suggestions did emerge

The National Forum represented one of the first opportunities for policy-makers, scientists, the media and the public to interact, in the current climate of public mistrust. It took place in the context of a survey {see above] completed earlier this month by Market and Opinion Research International, funded by the Kohn foundation, which showed that more than half of the British public believes the funding of science is too commercialized, and would like more influence over funding priorities.

The Royal Society forum was the culmination of four regional meetings, held over the previous year to understand the decline in public confidence of science and to define ways to improve it. Delegates from all walks of life - special interest groups, scientists, the general public - identified four general themes in public anxiety about science which Peter Woodward, director of Quest Associates which facilitated the meetings, presented at the forum:

*In the wake of BSE, he said, people feel that applied science is uncontrolled and guided by vested interests. Many people perceive inadequate regulation of 'new frontier' science, and feel powerless to influence science on ethical grounds.

*In general, the public wants more transparency about scientific information. People sense that information is limited to power groups such as scientists, corporate conglomerates and government, none of which they can trust. Sources of funding are never easy to ascertain.

*The chief source of public information - the media - have a confused role. Are they media hype merchants, or merely servants of the interests of scientists?

*There are shortfalls in science education. Not only do people misunderstand issues such as risk and the scientific process, but science education needs to change in order to attract future researchers.

It's easy to blame politicians for the current situation, said the head of the UK Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, adding that scientists and politicians "don't understand each other."

"They despise each other," responded MP Ian Gibson, who is chair of the Science and Technology Science Committee.

"Politicians do understand science and learn to communicate [it]," he insisted. "We do get involved and make a real difference, and lots of good things are happening."

But the chief scientist for Greenpeace, Douglas Parr, retorted that politicians often use science as a "cover-up for political decisions."

"Politicians patronize us, but we are not fools!" exclaimed a member of the general public, a woman named Yvonne Eckersley, after the first question from the floor raised the controversial issue of the safety of the single measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

"Politicians need to explain scientific controversy, not shelter behind other people," responded Paul Nurse, the 2001 Nobel Prize laureate who chairs the Royal Society's Science in Society initiative. The government could have handled the recent controversy over the safety of the single MMR vaccine much more effectively, he said, if it had provided "real information and real data" behind its decisions.

Essayist Fay Weldon agreed. Although she lauded scientists as "rational and well-intentioned, with amazing achievements," she said that during the recent MMR controversy "statistics were not given out" and "the public was not given sufficient respect and was treated as dangerous and foolish."

"Are the public really demanding certainties?" asked Greenpeace's Parr, and then he answered himself: "People are used to handling uncertainties, but perhaps not unknowns." The solution, he argued vehemently, is "openness" - a term that arose again and again during the debate.

"We were promised more openness," cried a frustrated member of the Labour Party, Ann Fitzgerald.

"Openness is critical for good decision-making," agreed Friends of the Earth's Secrett. "Transparency doesn't occur."

Perhaps it's not the government, but scientists, who are refusing to be open about the facts. "If scientists are seen to be open," said Beckett, "they may foster more responsibility."

The media, on the other hand, could be blamed perhaps for being too "open." People have the perception that the government is not giving them the full picture, Beckett carried on, but she placed the blame for recent science controversies fully at the door of the media. "It is not the job of the media to raise scares," she said, but to encourage "reasonable understanding."

In the case of the foot and mouth epidemic, King said, the media had a negative effect because it portrayed debate as division. But how can the public decide between "mavericks and great opinionated scientists," asked Philip Campbell, who is an editor at Nature. Secrett suggested that the media should "listen" to the mavericks, but not accord them the same weight as established scientific opinion.

We do not want consensus on all matters scientific, concluded Nurse (who had defined science, in his introduction to the forum, as "tentative knowledge.") The public should have the tools at their disposal to make informed judgments, he urged, and thus be able to contribute to the democratic process of science.

The UK's first public science forum did not resolve any issues, but it did draw up what one participant called a "wish list" toward creating such tools. To ensure better freedom of information about science, participants suggested that organizations such as the Royal Society should provide, and make the public aware of, a national database of websites concerned with scientific discoveries. Scientists ought to be trained about how to interact with the public, and citizen juries could be set up to help public opinion have greater influence on the government regarding scientific issues of the day.
"The universities are cheering us on, telling us to get closer to industry, encouraging us to consult with big business. The bottom line is to improve the corporate bottom line. It's the way we move up, get strokes.... We can't help but be influenced from time to time by our desire to see certain results happen in the lab." - Former Texas AW University entomologist John Benedict

"Well I think there is a very real problem from the point of view of university esearch in the way that private companies have entered the university, both with direct companies in the universities and with contracts to university researchers. So that in fact the whole climate
of what might be open and independent scientific research has disappeared, the old idea that universities were a place of independence has gone. Instead of which one's got secrecy, one's got patents, one's got contracts and one's got shareholders." - Professor Steven Rose, Open
University biologist

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