Last week Lord Robert Winston, a signatory to the Sense About Science letter to Blair calling for more government support for GM crops, surprised fellow signatories when he said that in some ways he regretted signing the letter and that there was a danger of science being used to deny uncertainties and of scientists following the money rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue over controversial scientific issues.
Needless to say, this has not gone down well. A photo of a rather glum Lord Winston appeared on the cover of the Times Higher Education Supplement, while the headline beneath announced 'Critics lambast Winston's ideas'.
The article is reproduced below. Here is part of what Lord Winston actually said:
"...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 [Chairman of Sense About Science], 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."
from Science and Politics - Debate in House of Lords 9 December 2003. Full debate:
Critics lambast Winston's ideas
Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 December 2003
Celebrity scientist Lord Winston has sparked an outcry among academics by calling for the public to dictate the direction of British science, arguing that mistrust of science has reached "crisis" proportions. Speaking exclusively to The THES, Lord Winston said that trying to communicate science to the public was no longer enough.
He claimed that a radical change of culture was needed to stem the groundswell of negative opinion about scientists.
He said: "We have to accept we don't own the science. One of the most difficult problems is to hand back the science to society and allow the public to take some very uncomfortable decisions."
In Lord Winston's view, scientists must recognise and then abide by public opinion on issues such as genetically modified crops, even if that opinion runs counter to scientific evidence.
"At the moment we engage the public in a very arrogant way. We pretend to listen by communicating but it is largely scientists lecturing to audiences," he said.
"Scientists are not good at dialogue, as we don't like listening, especially if people do not speak the same language."
Lord Winston also argued that scientists were tarnishing their reputation by associating with government.
He cited the controversy over the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine as proof that the public no longer trusted scientific facts presented to them by politicians.
He said: "We have to recognise that it is unwise to get too closely connected with government. Government has a different agenda."
But other influential scientists have greeted Lord Winston's comments with dismay.
Colin Blakemore, the new chief executive of the Medical Research Council and a leading figure in science communication, said that while people should be kept informed it would be dangerous to allow the public to dictate what scientists could and could not do.
He pointed out that public opinion was heavily influenced by lobby groups and often changed over time. He said: "Would (Lord Winston) be happy for embryo research to be regulated on the basis of a poll where only 30 per cent of people voted?"
Other academics reacted more strongly.
Lewis Wolpert, professor in the anatomy and developmental biology department at University College London, said Lord Winston's suggestion was "the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard".
He said: "Where there are technical issues, one should listen and be aware of public concerns but we shouldn't let them decide whether we can use stem cells for research."
Michael Wilkinson [should be Wilson], director of Horticulture Research International who has taken part in numerous debates about genetic modification, said that while public platforms could be "brutal", scientists should not give up on communication.
Ian Gibson, chair of the Commons' science and technology committee, warned that scientists must never walk away from politicians.
He said: "Keeping the two groups apart only preserves prejudice, arrogance and ultimately poor regulation."
Baroness Greenfield, scientist and director of the Royal Institution, strongly supported this opinion in a debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday. She warned that there was already a damaging gulf between scientists and politicians that needed to be addressed.
Lady Greenfield said: "The critical issue is that politicians and government should not be the followers of a public opinion that bases its knowledge of science on (reports by) journalists who, in many cases, cannot lay claim to any expertise in the area."