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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 13:46 GMT
Do we trust today's scientists?
Britain's Royal Society holds the UK's first National Forum for Science this week and top of the agenda is the question of public faith in scientists.

Scientific research has been indispensable to man's progress. Without the work of scientists we would not have enjoyed the benefits of medical advances like antibiotics or heart transplants, international communications - and we might even think that the Earth is still flat!

But a series of scandals, from DDT and Thalidomide to BSE, over recent years has dented public confidence. And with cloning and genetic modification increasingly making the news, the role of the scientist in shaping society is becoming ever more controversial.

Should people be more aware of what some scientists are presently doing? Is scientific research dominated by corporate interest rather than driven by the thirst for knowledge and progress? And with scientific issues becoming increasingly complex, how do scientists engage public interest in their work?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Gone are the days when scientists had time on their side to explore. They were taken from pain-staking and time-consuming research and put in a 100-meter dash with other scientists. Find something, attract funding or find yourself out of the door. Along with corporations institutions have become increasingly greedy. But good science is not dead. Instead of churning milk, we are whipping it as hard as we can. It still produces some butter. As Reagan once said about the Russians "trust but verify". Science is self-correcting. Give it some time, truth will come out.
Kannan, USA

Not all the public are so ignorant as to not understand issues such as GM & cloning. I believe the public have the right to determine whether GM crops are used or whether we clone humans. These are ethical issues that effect all of us.
GJ, Reading, UK

I feel the wave of distrust has emanated from the sensational presentation of published work by the mass media.

David Barber, UK
As a scientist I feel the distrust that has built up around science has not developed from the scientific method used in responsible research. The work performed and subsequent publishing in peer-reviewed journals should, and usually does, reduce the instances of poor research. I feel the wave of distrust has emanated from the sensational presentation of published work by the mass media. In some instances research work does pose certain ethical issues but these can and should be dealt with by bodies qualified to make informed judgments.
David Barber, UK

Scientists are human beings just like everyone else. Most have acceptable ethics, some do not. The real question for the general public is "Do you trust the scientific method." Personally I do. Peer review and debate among those in the field are the best defence against those with slippery ethics, not a government regulation written by those who know nothing but politics.
Greg Keif, US

The whole point about scientific method is that you SHOULDN'T blindly trust scientists and their statements as if these were facts: you should retain scepticism about every bit of science, and remember that whatever scientist say is just their latest and best theory - in proper science there are only "better" theories, never absolute truths.
Bernard, UK

Check the time on your digital watch. Cook food in a microwave range. Send and receive email, consume new drugs to cure old sickness and tell me that science is untrustworthy. I wonder that there is any debate on this subject.
Colin Butts, USA

You have to realise that there is no definite answer in a scientific work!

Simon, Cambridge
In the scientific world, the more one understands a subject, the more he realises how little is known about it. You have to realise that there is no definite answer in a scientific work!

By trusting scientists, you throw away your rights to analyze and question their results. There are scientific results with undesirable factors played down or intentionally omitted for reasons of publication or funding. If you trust them, you are misinformed.

One should always view scientific results with an objective mind, and look at how the supporting evidence is gathered, and whether the evidence are representative enough to support the arguments, before deciding the results is acceptable or not.

Such boring routine is a way of life in the scientific community. But it is not the atitude chosen by the general public in Britain. Here, people are not taught to make their own decision based on given facts, but to based on "expert" opinions, often biased. After the failure of many expert opinions, the British public now tends to place their safest bet on believing the worst case scenario. Look at BSE, CJD, MMR, ... etc. Sigh!
Simon, Cambridge, U.K.

There is incredible competition in our world

Dr Sharad Kumar, Birmingham, UK
Having worked in research for a very long time, I believe that there is unfair pressure on a lot of scientists these days both in academia and the corporate world. There is pressure to publish, win funding and get a name for themselves and their labs. This is turn has led to an environment of hurried publishing or half-baked data and results, sniping at others' research and in some cases, awful pseudo-scientific work. There are a large number of scientists who do excellent work and have resisted such pressures. The short answer to the question on this forum is yes, we're eminently trustworthy but there is incredible competition in our world and as humans, we have reacted to it in some very predictably human ways (deny, obfuscate and commercialise for starters).
Dr Sharad Kumar, Birmingham, UK

What choice do we have? If you don't trust scientists and science, who will you trust? Clergy? Politicians? If there's one thing that has made life better these past few centuries, it's been science and its progress. How science or scientific facts are applied is where we've had problems. Who decided to build and use nuclear weapons? Not Neils Bohr or Einstein.
Alfred Jones, USA

I do research at a university and part of the job is to critically assess the work of others. Some science is done well and some is terrible. The public should take its responsibility for scientific research that is done. Mostly the public want cheap food, a cure for cancer, eternal life etc. Scientists want funding. The public controls the market and the make up of their government and these in turn control funding. But the innocent public should not capitulate their responsibility to accept the consequence of their own desires.
Jonathan Hobley, Japan

What we end up with is a population that distrusts all scientists

Katie, UK
No, people don't trust scientists. They'd far rather put their faith in church leaders, spiritualists, fortune tellers and breathlessly gullible TV shows about the supernatural. We don't educate people in this country to ask questions and evaluate claims. What we end up with is a population that distrusts all scientists and trusts all fortune tellers.
Katie, UK

We can trust them to be the products of rigorous training, and to be used to having their every statement and conclusion checked over by eager eyes. Unfortunately we can also trust them to be as human and fallible as the rest of us, and as prone to wishful thinking. On balance, we can probably rely on them more than on non-scientists provided we check out the spectrum of scientific opinion. We must also remember that their funding has to come from somewhere, and there is pressure on them sometimes to get the "right" results and do the "right" research.
Deborah Hubbard, South Africa

They are not evil and secretive

Paula, UK
From some of the comments here, I think it is very obvious that not many people know scientists or how funding works. Those in academia are not paid huge sums of money to come up with products to sell - it is mainly grants from either charities or some such funding body, that fund research into an area that may be of interest to that funding body. I think that the public as a whole does have a very wrong idea of scientists and what they do - they are not evil and secretive at all - it is just the majority of work that goes on is not interesting to those outside of the field.
Paula, UK

Scientists I trust; it is businessmen I am wary of. It is not research, but the ends to which the research is put that poses a threat. Increasingly, it seems, profit comes before safety and ethics. Regulate big business; let science do its work.
Matthew, USA

The governments of countries should get actively involved in monitoring and regulating biological research

Ajit Balakrishnan, Canada
Scientists have the moral responsibility of informing the public about both the good and bad effects of any products or technologies that they launch or introduce. However, today's scientific world is dominated by businessmen who are more interested in making monetary gains using their scientific inventions or discoveries. Hence they sometimes tend to be secretive about the possible side effects of their products and technologies. In my opinion the governments of countries should get actively involved in monitoring and regulating biological research and ensure that the public is well informed.
Ajit Balakrishnan, Canada

We live in a mainly capitalist world. Scientists, therefore, are like everyone else, they have to make a profit. If people want scientific innovations someone, somewhere, has to pay for it. Corporations pay a lot of money towards researching things that could be financially profitable, but governments also support scientific research. This kind of research is paid for by the tax-payer and the public should be given more information about where their money is being spent.
Phil T, Oman

People make mistakes, and scientists are no exception

I am a scientist, so my opinion here is naturally from a scientist's point of view. People make mistakes, and scientists are no exception. Yes, in retrospect, DDT and Thalidomide were a bad idea, but then again so were World War I and World War II. People generally don't fully understand cloning or genetic modification, and I think it is better to leave such things to the scientists who do.

There have been accidents with nuclear reactors in the past, military and political disasters. Would the general public be allowed access to classified military information? The bulk of people I've met who think GM foods are a bad thing, don't really know what GM foods are. It's easy to say "educate the public" but short of sending them to graduate school, I don't see how people can be made to fully understand the work that scientists do.

Corporate sponsorship is not the only means of obtaining biased science - governments also achieve this via their funding criteria. "True" scientists, as opposed to "PR scientists" DO try to pass on understanding of the science and issue involved but unless they are communicating with people who have at least a rudimentary understanding of scientific principals, it is a losing endeavour.
John Burkey, The Netherlands/USA

Today the number of people choosing scientific research as their career has come down thanks to the horrendous materialization. I would say even those who enter research careers are not totally unaffected by this endless race. They too constantly look for commercial benefits to assert themselves.

This view of common man to research is further strengthened by the scams and controversial research areas we hear about. And the fact that politics plays an important role even in the research community makes things even worse. There is an urgent need to rid this field of politics and similar such negative affects so as to restore confidence in us.
Rathinakumar, India

Listen now
... to both sides of the debate
See also:

26 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
10 Jul 00 | Africa
08 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
04 Sep 01 | Health
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