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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 23:17 GMT 00:17 UK
Science creates 'own mavericks'
Image of a lab worker
'Maverick' views were excluded
British scientists fuel controversies by shunning colleagues with rebel ideas, according to research.

A Cardiff University study found British scientists ousted 'maverick' colleagues to avoid giving their arguments legitimacy.

In comparison, Swedish colleagues believed exclusion only served to exacerbate problems.

The author said this might explain how controversies around issues such as MMR have become health scares in the UK.

It's a matter of how controversies are handled within scientific communities
Study author Dr Lena Eriksson

Dr Lena Eriksson surveyed 30 expert scientists from Sweden and the UK about their opinions on a high-profile controversial topic in their field of expertise - genetically modified food.

She found significant differences between the two groups' attitudes about scientist Arpad Pusztai who was suspended from his workplace after claiming in 1998 that a type of GM potato had adverse effects on the immune systems of rats.

The Swedish scientists were more inclined to take the view that there has to be scope for scientists to make mistakes, and therefore the treatment of Pusztai was to be condemned, regardless of the truth to his claims.

The British scientists on the other hand only said it was wrong to suspend Pusztai when they believed he was right in his conclusions.

When they did not hold the same unorthodox views as a maverick scientist, their first instinct was to shut out any dissenting voice, said Dr Eriksson.


She believes research communities that punish scientists who present contentious results will risk disenchanting an already sceptical public even further.

There is a kind of closing of ranks around views that are regarded as maverick
Dr Piers Benn, lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College London

"This increases the likelihood of scientific controversies moving into a public domain, as the ousted scientists are forced to seek new audiences for their claims."

She cited the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine following Dr Andrew Wakefield's suggestions of a link between MMR and autism and bowel disease was an example.

"It's a matter of how controversies are handled within scientific communities.

Dr Eriksson told BBC News Online: "A Swedish 'big tent' strategy, in which room is made for marginal views, could potentially serve to diminish the risk of all-out battles between scientists in the full glare of mass media," she said.

The British scientists were also more accepting of management and employer control over the publication of their material.

Image of Dr Andrew Wakefield
Dr Andrew Wakefield's MMR research provoked controversy

They saw it as necessary for their own protection in a hostile world, while their Swedish counterparts tended to resent excessive "red tape".

Dr Piers Benn, a lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College London, said: "In my view, there is a general tendency in any profession to close ranks when somebody has said something controversial.

"There is a kind of closing of ranks around views that are regarded as maverick.

"People who have research that may be respectable tend to be dismissed on grounds of character rather than science," he said.

Bob Ward, spokesman for the Royal Society said: "It is hard to believe that Britain tries to suppress well-founded but unorthodox ideas any more than other countries because it has produced more than its fair share of mavericks who have made great steps forward for science.

"Just being a maverick does not ensure that your ideas are good. It is established practice that new ideas in science should be assessed for quality by one's peers, and that is as true in Sweden as it is in Britain.

"Perhaps British scientists react more strongly against researchers who bypass this scrutiny by their peers and instead go straight to the media before the quality of their work has been assessed.

"Nobody wants to see the public made more anxious because a researcher sought publicity for flawed results before the work was properly checked. The public deserve to hear why a controversial idea may be wrong if it is made public by any researcher."

Top doctor wades into MMR debate
23 Feb 04  |  Health
Profile: Dr Andrew Wakefield
23 Feb 04  |  Health
Q&A: The MMR debate
23 Feb 04  |  Health

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