GENET archive


2-Plants: Economic growth may compromise science

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  Economic growth may compromise science
SOURCE: silconrepublic,com, Ireland, by Brian Skelly
DATE:   5 Sep 2005

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Economic growth may compromise science

Narrowly linking science with economic growth may undermine scientific
endeavour and erode public trust in scientists, the president of the
British Association for Advancement of Science (BA) has warned.

Giving his presidential address at the launch of the week-long BA
Festival of Science in Dublin this morning, Professor Robert Winston
warned the growing commercialisation of science was threatening its
independence and traditional raison d'etre as existing for public benefit.

"Once the pursuit of science becomes heavily geared to profit, scientists
may be compromised. They may be perceived as having vested interests and
not working merely for the public good," he said, citing the example of
genetically modified crops and US chemicals giant Monsanto a decade ago.

He added: "Scientists need to be more aware of the dangers and academic
disadvantages of commercial interests, and recognise that conflicts of
interest may occur. Of course, we should not abandon commercial pursuits
but we must be cautious where necessary and we need to be prepared to
declare our commercial interests openly and freely."

Winston, a leading human fertility expert and well-known TV presenter,
also said the linking of university research to commercial return had the
effect of dumbing down some of the research, in that funding for some
importance basic research projects was being withdrawn because they were
not producing any financial gain. "University research may increasingly
be focused on what is likely to produce an income rather than on what is
intellectually most challenging," he contended.

Winston emphasised the problem was not limited to the UK; Ireland too was
in danger of turning science into a business. "Funding of science to make
our respective countries 'competitive' is to be welcomed, but it has its
downside. Science is no longer seen as an essential part of our culture
or as an important expression of essential human inquisitiveness. This
has grave dangers for science, though scientists often forget this. It
means some expensive scientific subjects -- astronomy, for example -- may
be increasingly underfunded because they are perceived as useless or not
producing sufficient economic returns."

While acknowledging the "huge benefit" that science had brought to
society, Winston said scientific research should not be unfettered but
required careful and responsible management. Without this, it not only
risked doing great harm to the planet but created a wedge between
scientists and the ultimate owners of scientific research -- the general
public, he claimed. "Even in the long established democracies, people do
not feel they have ownership, control or even much influence over the
technologies that are exploited by their governments and by commercial
enterprises," he said.

For scientists to better appreciate the social implications of new
technology, he said every university teaching science should include
compulsory ethics modules.

In a comment that will strike a chord with third-level colleges here,
Winston also said it was not enough for the UK government to increase
funding for science; it must be accompanied by a parallel increase in
university funding. "Young scientists in universities suffer great
uncertainty about their careers, which is a major disincentive for those
key young people. If the university sector is to be expanded as the
government intends -- with the stated objective of higher education for
50pc of school leavers -- it has to be funded. If the Irish and British
Governments seriously want an advanced, competitive and healthy society,
this must mean more recognition of the social as well as the economic
value of a university education. And they must pay for it."

More than 300 scientists and 3,000 visitors are expected to attend events
at the BA Festival of Science, which is being held in Dublin for the
first time in almost 50 years. The event aims to foster a greater
understanding of the value of science and technology.

                                 PART II
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TITLE:  Scientists need to reconnect with the people
SOURCE: Financial Times, UK, by James Wilsdon
DATE:   5 Sep 2005

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Scientists need to reconnect with the people

Each September, a couple of weeks before the political class decamps to
the seaside for the annual round of party conferences, Britain's
scientists host a gathering of their own. The British Association
Festival of Science has a distinguished history. It was here, in 1842,
that the word "dinosaur" was coined. And in 1860 that Bishop Wilberforce
and Thomas Huxley held their famous debate on evolution, when the former
asked the latter whether he would prefer to be descended from an ape on
his grandfather's or grandmother's side.

The 2005 BA Festival, which takes place this week in Dublin, will be
attended by around 400 scientists and remains an important showcase for
new ideas. But its primary role is now as a forum for communication and
dialogue between scientists and the wider public, especially in areas of
social or ethical concern, such as stem cell research or nanotechnology.
This makes it a useful barometer of the scientific state we are in, and
the degree of public confidence in science.

During the arguments over genetically modified crops, many scientists
felt they were on the losing side of a battle for hearts and minds. But
the GM saga made scientists think about the importance of dialogue on
difficult issues. And there is a growing confidence that lessons have
been learned. Two pieces of evidence are cited in support of this view.
First, the debate over nanotechnologies, which had threatened to snowball
into a GM-style controversy, is held up as a model of scientific self-
regulation and early public engagement. Last year's inquiry by the Royal
Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and the government's response,
are seen as successful templates for managing the dilemmas posed by
emerging technologies. Second, public opinion seems to be swinging back
in science's favour. The latest MORI poll commissioned by the Office of
Science and Technology shows that 86 per cent of people think science
"makes a good contribution to society" - up 5 per cent on two years ago.

The GM debate is spoken of as an aberration rather than an episode that
highlights systemic problems in the governance of science and technology.
There is a sense of complacency within sections of the science community:
a belief that we can return to business as usual, with a few new
committees and a little extra public consultation, but without
fundamental reform of scientific culture and practice. A contrasting view
is that the real work has just begun. The tone of conversations between
scientists and the public has started to change. But if relations are to
continue improving, dialogue on social and ethical issues must become a
normal part of good scientific practice.

Until now, most attention has focused on the "hardware" of public
engagement - the focus groups and citizens' juries that can give the
public a voice in science policy and decision-making. In the next phase,
this needs to be accompanied by a greater focus on the "software" - the
codes, values and norms that shape science, but which are harder to
access and change. Otherwise, we will end up with little more than the
scientific equivalent of corporate social responsibility: a well-meaning
and busy field, propelled along by its own conferences and reports, but
never quite impinging on fundamental cultures and practices.

For example, most PhD scientists in Britain's top universities receive
compulsory courses on attracting venture capital but are taught nothing
about the history and philosophy of science, or the social impacts of
technology. Similarly, the Research Assessment Exercise, which ranks and
determines funding to all university departments, creates no incentive
for academic scientists to devote their time to public engagement or
ethical reflection.

The implications are far-reaching. This year's A-level results show a
slight increase in the number of entries for science subjects but the
overall trend is heading in the wrong direction: since 1991, the numbers
taking physics A-level have fallen by 35 per cent, maths by 21 per cent
and chemistry by 12 per cent. If we are to attract more young people to
scientific careers, and maintain Britain's position as a world-class
centre for research and development, we must do more to connect science
and technology to people's values and aspirations. Scientists need more
opportunities to talk about the choices they make and the purposes of
their research. Starting an authentic debate on these questions is in the
interests of science and of an enlightened democracy.

The writer is head of science and innovation at Demos think-tank and co-
author of The Public Value of Science, available free from


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