March 09, 2006
Surveys show that the more the public knows about science, the less it is inclined to trust it. Given this paradox, how can scientists retain the confidence of an increasingly sceptical public?
Experts from Germany, Britain and Switzerland met to consider how science can best engage with society. The meeting organized by the Schering Stiftung, the British Council and the British Embassy brought together scientists, journalists and decision-makers. The event was moderated by Vincent Landon, a freelance science journalist and broadcaster from Berlin.
“The significance of trust in science and research is particularly evident when the public is confronted with acute health risks, whether real or perceived, such as BSE, SARS or avian flu,” said Professor Reinhard Kurth, president of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. He said that scientists who advise politicians, the media or the public walked a very fine line between under- and overestimating risks. Statements on current problems usually have to be given at a time when the data are incomplete and before a clear scientific understanding of risk developments and risk assessment is possible.
According to Kurth, the credibility of statements on scientific questions of public interest is highly dependent upon the reputation of both the individual scientist and the institution s/he works for. He said the goal was to inform non-professionals in a way that enables them to make their own informed judgements. “We have to admit if there are gaps in scientific understanding,” he explained. “Saying what we don’t know helps increase our credibility. Trust in science can only develop if people have the feeling that they are taken seriouslyand informed comprehensivelyby scientists. We need to respect the public. We need compassion and willingness to learn when we address the emotional aspects of a subject,” he added. He also called for political neutrality and freedom from commercial interest.
Ethics in science was also the topic of the contribution of professor Jürgen Mittelstraß, director of the Center for Philosophy and Theory of Science at the University of Konstanz. He explored the question of when scientists are confronted with ethical problems in their work and why researchers have to feel constrained by ethical codes. Ethical issues involving science, he said, fall broadly into three categories. Problems can arise with the application of scientific results (for example, nuclear research and the atom bomb) or with the research itself (stem cell research and reproductive medicine) or where there is falsehood and deceit (South Korean cloning scandal involving scientist Hwang Woo-suk).
In the estimation of experts, the discussion about trust in science reflects the influence of culture and history in the different countries. “Why is regulation in England for stem cell research so different from Germany?” asked Professor Klaus Tanner, member of the Theological Faculty of the University of Halle-Wittenberg. “It is not because the research is different but because the cultural and historical experiences are different.” How people perceive and assess risks has to do with their belief system, said Tanner.
The theme was taken up by Dr. David Coles, who works in the Science and Society Directorate of the European Commission. Coles analyzed data from the latest Eurobarometer science surveys which polled 1,000 people in the 25 EU member states and seven other countries. “There are very different attitudes in different parts of Europe to science and new developments in science and technology,” said Coles, adding that in societies which have made the most technological progress, there was much less unconditional support for science and technology and greater awareness of the risks. Across the EU, people generally had high expectations of medical advances. Some 88% of those polled believed that science and technological progress will help cure illnesses such as AIDS and cancer.
73% of those polled agreed that scientists should be free to carry out the research they wish provided they respect ethical standards. Only 10% disagreed and the rest were undecided. Asked, however, whether the government should spend more money on research and less on other things, there were significant national variations from 69% in Italy and 68% in Spain and France to a mere 25% in the Netherlands. In Cyprus, 88% agreed with the statement that food made from genetically modified organisms is dangerous and only 4% disagreed while in the Netherlands, 30% agreed and 39% disagreed, with the remainder in both cases undecided.
How science and society can interact is shown by the example of Switzerland: There, direct democracy makes it possible for Swiss citizens to challenge all laws passed by parliament and propose new regulations. “Over the past fifteen years, there have been six votes on scientific activities, and five times the vote has been in favor of science,” said Dr. Gerard Escher, Assistant Director at the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research. These include antivivisection activities in the 1980s, the initiative which sought to outlaw all genetic engineering in 1998 and, in November 2004, the referendum on the use of human embryos for the generation of embryonic stem cells. Last year, however, the Swiss did approve a five-year moratorium on GMOs in food and plants.
Among the complex reasons why people had problems with GM agriculture was distrust of multinationals, said Professor Nick Pidgeon from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. “One reason people have become less trusting is to do with concerns about who pays for research,” he added. Citing a UK-wide survey from 2003, Pidgeon said scientists who were most trusted on issues like GM were those working in universities followed by those in government departments and industry. For other issues like climate change, the same was true, i.e. the level of trust depends on who you work for. “The idea that trust in science in western nations in particular has collapsed is not true,” Pidgeon said. “It is important to distinguish between attitudes to science in general and attitudes to very specific issues and while we may worry about specific risk issues, we still have a real faith in science in general. Dialogue and deliberation should be about exploring risk concern and its management. It shouldn’t be attempting to persuade people that science is great.” He appealed to all scientists: “You are trusted because you are an expert, or you demonstrate that you care for the person who is trusting you or you share someone’s values.”
Professor Peter Weingart, director of the Institute for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Bielefeld, commented on the role of the media in the discourse about society and science. He said scientists should not view the media as a conduit through which rational discourse can be transmitted from the scientfic community to the public. “The press does treat science much better than it realises and if it is critical, this is with respect to certain issues,” he said.
This viewpoint was shared by journalist Vivienne Parry from London. “Scientists feel unloved and are absolutely convinced that it is the fault of the media and their way of presenting science,” said Parry. She added that newspapers reflected the attitudes of their readers. It is not their task, she said, to promote science. In today’s world and its relentless competition for grants and funding, scientists occasionally tend to extol the virtues of their research years before it actually happens, summarized Parry.
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