On Tuesday, the Society of Biology hosted their annual Parliamentary Links day – a big event bringing together the science community and UK parliamentarians in the House of Commons. This year’s theme was science and public trust.
The morning was hosted by a cross-party group of MPs – Andrew Miller MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP and Julian Huppert MP. Speakers included the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport and Liam Byrne, the Labour Shadow Minister for Higher Education who took the opportunity to launch the Labour Party’s green paper on science.
Discussion ranged around trust between scientists and politicians, scientists and the public and politicians and the public. There was much agreement that trust is a two-way thing and that there is a need for all sides to engage honestly, moving from ‘telling’ to ‘discussing’ issues.
The morning rounded up with a keynote speech from Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, giving his own reflections on science and public trust:
“Science is important, for our democracy, for our economy. It can improve our health and quality of life, help solve the world’s problems of food security and energy, support sustainability, and drive economic growth. But to achieve this there needs to be a good relationship between science and society, based on trust in science and of scientists. This needs to be worked at because it cannot be taken for granted.
There are two aspects of trust in science I want to consider today. The first is, what is it about science which means that it should be trusted? And the second is which scientists and scientific organisations should be trusted to give good advice about science to society and its democratic institutions?
Science should be trusted because it can generate reliable knowledge about the natural world and ourselves. This is because of the way that science is done. Science has a number of attributes not all unique to science, but when put together make it a reliable and self-correcting process of generating knowledge. A number of attributes are important.
Good science requires honesty and openness. Dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour are unacceptable, and destroy a scientist’s reputation and career. Science is a demanding and high calling.
The bedrock from which all science flows is reproducible observation and experiment. This means that ultimately what is observed – the data – trumps all, even the most beautiful idea. Scientists need to take account of all observations and experiments, and not just cherry pick data that happen to support their own ideas and theories. Scientific issues are settled by the overall strength of evidence.
But experiments and observations alone are not enough. It is the ability to prove that something is not true which is at the centre of science. This distinguishes it from beliefs based on religion and ideology and quite often politics, which place much more emphasis on faith, tradition and opinion. Scientists have to come up with ideas that can be tested. Then experiments have to be devised to test the idea further. If the result of the experiment does not support the idea then it is rejected, or modified and tested again. If the results of the experiments always support the idea then it becomes more acceptable as an explanation of the natural phenomenon.
Implicit in this approach is that scientific knowledge evolves. Early on in a scientific study knowledge is often tentative, and it is only after repeated testing that it becomes increasingly secure. It is this process that makes science reliable, but it takes time. This can lead to problems when scientists are called upon to give advice on issues when the science is not yet complete. We see this every day in the newspapers – whether a medical procedure is safe or what foods are good or bad, what is happening to the climate. The public and policy makers want clear and simple answers but sometimes that is not possible.
People need to understand this and we should start in our schools. Science is taught based on the great ideas that have successfully undergone much testing, such as those of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, and so we tend to think all science is equally secure, as if written in stone. But that may not be the case, particularly at an early stage in research when knowledge is more tentative. Understanding how science works should receive greater emphasis at school, because the public would then be able to appreciate the process of science and what it is about science that makes it sometimes tentative, sometimes more certain. It is not always possible to achieve certainty on complex scientific problems. However, when faced with a difficult scientific issue, society should turn to expert scientists for their consensus view.
Look at the debate about climate change. The majority of expert climate scientists have reached the consensus view that human activity has resulted in global warming, although there is debate about how much the temperature will rise in the future. There are others who take more extreme views; either that warming is not taking place at all or that it will happen in a very catastrophic way. These have failed to persuade the majority of climate experts, who have judged the scientific arguments made to support these more extreme views as being too weak to be convincing. Society should listen to the majority consensus opinion of expert scientists. The emphasis I place on consensus of expert scientists is sometimes not understood by those not fully aware of how science works. Scientists argue amongst themselves a great deal over data and ideas. Only good explanations ultimately survive those arguments and debates. For example, arguments of mavericks seldom survive this intense scrutiny. So the consensus view of expert scientists reached after much debate and discussion usually represents the best current view of a scientific issue.
There are also personal qualities which are important for the reliability of science, including a sceptical attitude, courtesy in scientific dispute, humility and self-doubt. This was recognised by the seventeenth century philosopher of science Francis Bacon who said
“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts’ but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
Put all this together and you have a very powerful process for generating knowledge of the natural world, one that the public can have trust in.
Let me now turn to the second aspect. Which scientists and scientific organisations should be trusted to give good advice about science to society and its democratic institutions? It is obvious that it should involve those who are expert in the scientific area involved, that is those with a relevant research track record and achievements. It is also useful in addition to engage experienced scientific generalists, that is scientists who understand the attributes of good science and are familiar with science policy issues. A further extra helpful check is to set up expert scientist groups to peer review the original advice, making use of independent expert scrutiny. The corollary is also true, that is those who are not expert and cannot properly assess the relevant specialist evidence and argument are not likely to be appropriate. Scientists giving advice need to be open and impartial, never cherry picking data and argument. They also need to explain the range of possibilities with an assessment of the probabilities of particular outcomes. Scientists also need to explain the science in a way that non-scientists can understand. Unless the advice is clearly assessable it will be of limited value to the wider society.
A range of different bodies offer scientific advice on policy issues. What are the characteristics of those bodies that should be trusted? It is always useful to look at the scientific advice from different bodies because it is good to be exposed to a range of opinions. However, some types of bodies are likely to be more reliable at giving scientific advice. In general terms the characteristics to look for are as follows: they should be broadly based, be impartial, understand the methods and values of science, respect openness, and carry out proper peer review. More specialist organisations with more specific objectives such as lobbying groups, a commercial company, or a single interest NGO, may find it more difficult to be impartial. For example, a company concerned about its income and an NGO about the views of its supporters, may find it difficult to be objective in their scientific analyses. In some cases, scientific advice is offered by more shadowy organisations who do not want to declare where their support comes from for their policy work. They are likely to be acting more as lobby groups without revealing for whom or for what they are lobbying, and so should not be relied on for giving impartial scientific advice. Organisations that do not reveal where their funding comes from should be viewed with suspicion. Similarly, organisations that are bombastic, resorting to personal attacks and misrepresentation are likely to be resorting to such tactics because they have lost the scientific argument, and so their scientific advice should also be treated with caution.
So what is good practice for the provision of scientific advice for public policy? Such advice should be based on the totality of observation and experiment on rational argument, and reflect the consensus views of expert scientists, views which have been rigorously peer reviewed by other independent experts. If there is no strong consensus or if knowledge is still tentative, then these uncertainties should be reflected in the advice. As far as possible, the science should be kept separate from political, ideological and religious influence. Good public advice will usually require public engagement to make sure public concerns are taken account of and the scientific questions are framed correctly, and also to ensure that the answers are clearly assessable. Scientists need to be involved from the outset of public debate to help prevent an issue becoming unhelpfully polarised, and need to give the best advice they can, focussing on proper risk assessment. Finally, scientific bodies who can be trusted to give advice should be broadly based, impartial, understand the methods and values of science, and be completely open about its sources of income and conflicts of interest in policy work. These attributes generally apply to the national science academies such as the Royal Society which has been providing scientific advice to society for 350 years. But then I would say that!
Public trust in science is important. On the whole the UK public do trust scientists. In an Ipsos Mori Poll of 2013 83% of the public trusted scientists to tell the truth compared with 89% of doctors, 86% of teachers and unfortunately only 23% of MPs and 21% journalists. And in their 2014 public attitudes to science poll, Ipsos MORI found 70% of the public think the media sensationalises science and parliamentarians are viewed as unqualified, short-term thinkers. This is not fair in my experience, but does mean that parliamentarians, journalists and scientists need to work better together in their discussions of scientific issues, so the public can have more trust that our democratic institutions are engaging properly with science. This is important to ensure that science delivers all that it can to bring benefit for society. Better discussion and engagement about science with the public will lead to more trust in science, and in my view this will be increasingly important for a healthy democracy. There is a job here for both parliamentarians and scientists, which is why Parliamentary Links Days such as this are so important.”