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Thursday, 23 May, 2002, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Science must not be stifled - Blair
Tony Blair claims British science could fall behind
Britain risks being overtaken by other countries if it lets unjustified protests stifle vital scientific advances, Tony Blair has warned.

In a speech on Thursday, the prime minister told the Royal Society in London that science was crucial to the UK's economic success.

Let the debate be won between open minds, not a retreat into the culture of unreason

Tony Blair
His speech included attacks on protests against animal experiments and GM crops, as he urged people to judge new ideas on the scientific facts.

But Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said ministers seemed willing to accept scientific argument when it backed business but was less open when evidence suggested dangers and difficulties.

And Lord Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, accused the prime minister of "regurgitating chemical industry propaganda".

'Simple plea'

Mr Blair said he understood that people were worried by some scientific advances but he pressed for a more mature debate which needed science to establish the facts.

"My plea is really very simple," he said. "It is: let the debate be won between open minds, not a retreat into the culture of unreason."

The prime minister said ideas that scientists were developing some kind of "Dr Strangelove" were based on misunderstanding.

GM crops protest
GM protests are partly blamed for the poor image of science
A new "robust, engaging dialogue" with the public was needed to restore confidence in science, which had been damaged by episodes such as the BSE crisis.

The prime minister told how a group of scientists in Bangalore, India, had told him: "Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you and you will miss out."

Mr Blair continued: "I believe that if we don't get a better understanding of science and its role, they may be proved right."

Britain was at a crossroads where it could choose timidity or a confident approach to the modern world, he added.

Scientists worried

Although many scientists applauded Labour's 2bn investment in science after it came to power, others believe salaries are still too low and more must be done to bolster the profession.

In a letter on Wednesday, 29 top scientists called for more investment so schools and universities could recruit and keep good teachers and researchers.

The prime minister cannot argue that it is in Britain's economic interest to support GM food

Lord Melchett
Soil Association
They said the country's science, engineering and medical research base had been crucial to the social, economic and environmental success of the UK.

But its future depended on science education in schools and universities, they said.

Mr Blair said getting bright youngsters interested in scientific careers was a "clear challenge for Britain in the next 10 years".

On Wednesday, the government's Chief Scientist told the BBC that funding would be found for a new laboratory in Cambridge researching neural diseases.

The local authority had said it couldn't afford security for the centre, which will use monkeys for testing.

GM protests

The government has previously backed Huntingdon Life Sciences, the medical research company repeatedly targeted by violent animal rights protests.

But Michelle Thew, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: "I am shocked by Tony Blair's defence at all costs of the interests of the animal-testing industry and his complete dismissal of the fears and concerns of an increasingly anxious public."

And Greenpeace Chief Scientist Dr Doug Parr said: "The British are not anti-science but simply pro-democracy. All of the new technologies that Mr Blair promotes are entirely controlled by private enterprise and released into the world without any form of democratic mandate or public consultation.

"Even after the recent tornado of criticism over GM food, Mr Blair is still trying to stop genetically engineered food from being labelled for consumers. He just doesn't learn."

Mr Blair's comments have, however, gone down very well in the UK's major scientific institutions.

Professor Sir Brian Heap, Master of St Edmunds College, Cambridge, said: "Thank goodness the Prime Minister is taking the initiative in seeking to reverse the potentially dangerous trend that has developed against responsible science."

And Professor Philip Dale, from the John Innes Centre, said: "The pro-science comments by the Prime Minister are very welcome. The anti-science campaigns propagated by some organisations seriously risk paralysing innovation in UK science.

"The recent destruction of field crop experiments, which were designed to generate knowledge on which sound decisions can be made, has parallels with book-burning in supposedly less enlightened times."

Prime Minister Tony Blair
"Let the debate be won between open minds"
Professor King, scientific adviser to the government
"We need to take full account of public views"
Teacher Daniel Bloomfield
"Science teaching... needs to capture the audience"
See also:

23 May 02 | UK Education
22 May 02 | UK Education
19 May 02 | UK Politics
06 May 02 | England
06 May 02 | Scotland
28 Apr 02 | Scotland
27 Apr 02 | Scotland
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