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Last Updated: Monday, 6 September, 2004, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Public must 'help direct science'
By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff, at the BA festival

Scientist in the lab, Eyewire/BBC
The public must have some say in the direction of scientific research, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science says.

Professor Dame Julia Higgins says a way must be found to ensure that ordinary people's views inform the decisions which are finally made in their name.

This could also prevent backlashes such as the one against GM food, she says. Dame Julia's comments came during her presidential address at the BA's annual Festival of Science, in Exeter.

In it, she pointed out that although the public indirectly funds science, it has little control over how the money is spent.

Public as safeguard

The BA president explained that the public was seriously worried about issues such as GM crops and nanotechnology and felt it was not being properly informed about their potential risks.

"You can't actually have a referendum on every scientific proposal in this country. But, on the other hand, we do have elected representatives," Dame Julia told reporters.

"They listen to what the public is thinking and it's clear that the publicly articulated part of this debate could be extremely helpful in ensuring we don't get backlashes like GM or potentially with nanotechnology."

Dame Julia added that, in order to better equip society for engaging in informed dialogue, the ethical, social and political implications of science must be incorporated into school and university education.

"I think a lot of it comes down to education. People need to be encouraged to talk about science from a very early age. If people understand, they are more willing to give to the debate," she explained.

"We have to find innovative ways of incorporating public concern into the process of how we decide which research is given the go-ahead."

Recognising the risks

She also added her voice to those of others calling for a more serious level of debate on the issues in science that mattered to the public.

"I don't think the public have closed minds, but I think some of the institutions that orchestrate the debate do," she said.

On the other hand, much responsibility rested on scientists. Being paid to work as a research scientist exploring the frontiers of knowledge carried with it an enormous responsibility to "do good science", Dame Julia added.

This translated into a need on the part of scientists to be aware of the safety and ethical issues of their research and to try to communicate it.

Dame Julia also appealed for "invisible scientists", those people with scientific training who no longer used it in their professions, to play a greater role in promoting science.

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28 Jul 04  |  Science/Nature
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20 Jul 04  |  Science/Nature

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