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Speaking of science

The UK prime minister has celebrated science - too cautiously.

Bill Durodié

Topics Politics

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UK prime minister Tony Blair made a pro-science speech to the Royal Society on 23 May. The fact that it was the first ever speech given by a serving prime minister to Britain’s premier science body speaks volumes.

And the fact none of the print media reported the speech on their front pages shows what an uphill struggle promoting science will be.

Blair’s speech had much to commend it. He raised concerns shared by many in the business and academic worlds about those who use ‘emotion to drive out reason’. He argued for the need not to prejudge the outcome of research, recognising that ‘science creates possibilities that were not imagined previously’. ‘We could choose a path of timidity in the face of the unknown’, said Blair, ‘or we could choose to be a nation at ease with radical knowledge, not fearful of the future’ (1).

Predictably Blair had his detractors, some of whom claimed that his pro-science stance was irresponsible. There is much to criticise in Blair’s anti-science critics – but there is also much to criticise in Blair’s speech itself.

Doug Parr of Greenpeace and Sue Mayer of Genewatch were quick to attack Blair. Parr argued that ‘new technologies are frequently far more powerful than conventional politics in directing societies’ – while Mayer claimed that ‘critical questioning is not anti-science but is important for good, independent science and for a healthy democracy’.

Parr overplays the technical potential of science. He relegates human action to the sidelines and claims we can do little but watch as society is apparently directed by outside forces. Mayer confuses objectivity with independence. Critical questioning may indeed be important for a healthy democracy, but science need have little to do with the latter.

The Daily Telegraph also criticised Blair – pointing out that it was Blair’s government that had ‘encouraged the political atmosphere in which “unlawful protests” by animal activists have recently thrived’, and had recently ‘started work on a “Bill of Rights for animals”’. It is true that, for all its rhetoric of support, the Labour Party pulled the small shareholding of its pensions fund out of Huntingdon Life Sciences – the Cambridgeshire-based firm that conducts animal experiments in pursuit of cures for serious illnesses – after it had been contacted by the Political Animal Lobby (which had made a £1millon donation to Labour) (2).

Also, the advances in stem cell research that Blair talked up in his speech were delayed by the kind of ‘emotion’ Blair derided. Government-initiated concerns and calls for more inquiries into stem cell research led the New Labour peer and leading scientist Lord Winston to describe the process as ‘pathetic’ and ‘immoral’.

Ironically, stem cell research is largely responsible for the ‘brain gain’ that Blair referred to in his speech. Far from revealing the importance of ‘moral judgement’ in science, it was precisely the moralistic stance of the Bush administration in the USA on the issue of stem cell research that drove many American scientists to Britain to pursue further research.

From within the scientific community, Lord May, the current president of the Royal Society and former chief scientific adviser to the government, and Sir Richard Sykes, rector of my former stomping ground the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London, both called on Blair to put his money where his mouth is – to ensure that science receives the funding it deserves in the government spending review.

But you don’t have to be a scientist to see that a government with so many ‘top priorities’ – healthcare, the police, trains, education – will not be able to deliver on all fronts.

This financial critique misses the point: it will take more than cash to reinvigorate the demoralised body of British science. It is the constant interference from bodies external to science, as well as the complicity in this of leading scientific bodies, that has done the most to discourage the spirit of inquiry and experimentation that is necessary to conduct groundbreaking research (3).

Blair talked about how science can be used create future prosperity – but there’s more to science than making money. Science does indeed give rise to commercial success, but science narrowly tailored to these goals can suffer as a result.

Blair also talked up the need to establish a dialogue with the public on scientific matters, and highlighted the role of the ‘precautionary principle’ – which claims that any scientific development that has the possibility of adverse effects should be prevented – in promoting a ‘[r]esponsible science’. Blair seems to want it both ways – to keep scientists and businesses happy, while staving off criticism from sociologists and environmental activists.

The precautionary principle acts as a brake upon development, creating a climate that stifles the inquiry and debate that science needs.

Bill Durodié is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Animal research: extremists are not the main problem, by Helene Guldberg

Chewing over GM food, by Vivian Moses

Risk, science and society, by Professor Sir Colin Berry

(1) PM Speech: ‘Science Matters’, 28 May 2002

(2) See Animal research: extremists are not the main problem, by Helene Guldberg

(3) See The Demoralization of Science (.pdf), by Bill Durodié

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Topics Politics

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