INNOVATION: THEME 8
Rebuilding Public Trust in Science & Technology
Innovation requires public trust in science and technology and in the people who work at the frontiers of human knowledge. A combination of some real disasters and many unfounded scare stories has undermined this trust in recent years.
8.1 Rebuilding trust in scientists
First degree university science, engineering and technology courses should include a study of the moral and ethical dimensions of science. In the long term, this will have will have trickle-up and trickle-down effects: Some graduates will go into management and carry the ethical values learned during their formative years with them. Others will go on to become school teachers and incorporate their understanding of ethics into the teaching of science.
8.2 Rebuilding trust in the quality of scientific information
A distinguished national body, for example, The Royal Society, could be given funding to set up a panel of academics and other experts, to write well balanced review papers on science, technology and medical issues of public interest. These papers would be written in clear, everyday language and published on the internet.
The lists of references attached to the review papers should include three innovations:
1) Hyperlinks to pressure group, government and other relevant web sites would be added. So, for example, a paper on GM foods would include links to the Green Peace and Monsanto web sites. This would encourage members of the public to view an issue of interest from different perspectives. It would also tend to discourage the disparate parties from making unfounded claims, for fear of being cited as inaccurate by the Royal Society.
2) References to original research papers could include links to their abstracts, to give the public a flavour of the original work.
3) The site should include an on-line order form, which would enable the public to purchase electronic copies of original papers. In Edwardian times, possessing a decent collection of the classics was the mark of a cultured mind. Sometime in the near future, possessing a good collection of well thumbed original science research papers may become the badge of an open mind.
Other benefits of the website: In addition to helping the general public become more science savvy, access to good quality information on science would help to improve technology based decision making across the spectrum, from Parliament to environmental pressure groups.
8.3 Simplifying the scientific data which affects our lives
The public are bombarded with masses of different types of scientific data relating to food, health hazards & pollution. Scientists differ in their interpretation of this data, so the public doubts the worth of their science. For key areas where science enters our lives we need to devise simple indices and diagrams which replace confusing terms. For example, do the public, or even scientists themselves know the differences between "theoretical", "negligible" and "low risk" when hazards are being described in the media?
The linked article Simplifying dietary advice illustrates how scientific data can be simplified by showing how complex data on healthy eating could be reduced to just two numbers.
8.4 Reducing the perception of scientific arrogance
Scientists have made sufficient mistakes in the past for the statement, "Trust me, I'm a scientist." To carry very little conviction.
Scientists, engineers and medical experts need to design mechanisms which will hand more decision making power to individuals, while still encouraging the public to follow the advice of the experts.
A good example of the damaging effect of a public perception of scientific arrogance is the official government position on the MMR vaccine, which is based on the best advice of experts. Scientists and medical experts are so confident in their belief concerning the safety of the MMR vaccine that they refuse to negotiate on alternative vaccination strategies which would make allowance for the powerful, if sometimes irrational, parental instincts.
Please see the linked article Protecting our children-the MMR vaccine problem for a strategy which takes greater account of public concern on the MMR vaccine while still supporting the medical argument that the MMR vaccine is the safest option.
8.5 Scientists in public life
Scientists should use their expertise to make a higher profile contribution to public life. The linked article Reverse engineering a peace process in the Middle East is an illustrative example of how they could do this without compromising their scientific neutrality.
8.6 Cheshire Innovation & the Organ Transplant Paradox
Cheshire Innovation is working with several industrial and university partners to develop Shock Absorbing Liquid (SALi) Technology. If we are successful, this technology will make a significant contribution to reducing deaths in motor vehicle, cycling and horse riding accidents.
A paradoxical secondary effect is that it will also reduce the supply of body parts which are frequently made available following the sudden, accidental death of a previously healthy person. By saving some lives, we put other lives at risk.
In view of our special interest in this problem, we offer a solution in a linked article, Proposal for Increasing the Number of Potential Body Part Donors.
Next page, (Innovation Theme Nine)