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Lord Winston
"Good science requires good judgement"
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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 08:39 GMT
Scientists 'must build' public trust
Reporting of BSE "rocked the public's trust"
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

A parliamentary report says more must be done to restore public confidence in science in the wake of the BSE scandal and fears about GM food.

The report, Science and Society, by the Lords Science and Technology Committee, says the public's relationship with science is in a "critical phase".

Scientists must take the rough with the smooth, and learn to work with the media as they are

Lords Science and Technology Committee
It adds that even though the public take much of science's benefits for granted, their trust in it has been rocked by fear of "mad cow disease", or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE).

It also cites widespread suspicion and unease about the rapid progress of biotechnology.

Even though science journalism flourishes in the UK, the report stresses there is some sensationalist and uninformed media reporting of scientific research such as genetically-modified (GM) foods.

The Lords therefore suggests there should be new more rigorous guidelines for science journalists, because "many scientists feel that they do it very badly".

But they reject calls for science journalism to be regulated.

Timely dialogue

"Scientists must take the rough with the smooth, and learn to work with the media as they are," they say.

Peers add that they endorse new science reporting guidelines for editors, produced by the Royal Society in response to their inquiry.

Public mistrust of GM foods is still strong
In general, the report goes over some well-trodden ground echoing the conclusions reached by the pioneering Wolfendale committee established in 1995 by the previous government to look into the relationships between science, society and the media.

It adds that scientists must have a "more direct, open and timely dialogue with the public that includes listening as well as talking". The call for a new approach is made by Lord Jenkin of Roding, Chairman of the year-long inquiry.

He says: "It is a paradox that this crisis of trust should take place at a time when the public is finding science, engineering and technology more interesting and exciting than ever.

"But the evidence of mistrust is undeniable, and must be of deep concern to the scientific community."

What scientists see as public hostility to science may sometimes be due, not to lack of understanding, but to public values and attitudes being ignored, he adds.

Media role

The report highlights the role of the media in putting science across to the public. The Lords co-sponsored a research project, which analysed media coverage of GM food at the height of the UK controversy in 1999.

The findings described how a science story which becomes news is handled, not by specialist science reporters, but by news desks and political staff.

Report says scientists must "listen as well as talk"
They may lack expertise and balance in presenting the science and misrepresent the true state of scientific research in the process, it says.

Lord Winston, the Chairman of the Select Committee and a well-known broadcaster, said: "Scientists are servants of society, not its masters, and people should be properly informed about what we scientists are doing.

"The public deserves the most accurate scientific information from the media."

The Lords say that efforts to improve relationships between science and society will take many forms, adding that the internet is a key link between scientist and public.

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