Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Concern over diminishing public trust in scientists' pronouncements has prompted Britain's premier scientific organisation to seek a more reliable way of telling people about breakthroughs in research.

Concern over diminishing public trust in scientists' pronouncements has prompted Britain's premier scientific organisation to seek a more reliable way of telling people about breakthroughs in research.

The Royal Society is establishing a group to analyse the coverage of a number of issues and the public reactions to them, in an attempt to minimise the "harm" it says can occur from "inaccurate and misleading communication of the results of scientific research, particularly when they have implications for human health".

Among other issues, the group will examine the furore that erupted over research into genetically modified potatoes by Professor Arpad Pusztai. In 1998 he told a television programme that GM food could poison rats and perhaps humans.

It will also look at the effect on public confidence of the false claims made by a scientist at Bell Laboratories to have made single-molecule transistors; studies by scientists in Mexico showing genes from GM crops had crossed into traditional corn plants, which were published in Nature magazine in November 2001; and claims that the MMR vaccine could be linked to autism in children.

The announcement follows the results of a survey published on Wednesday by the University of East Anglia, which found the British public was more likely to trust environmental or consumer groups than government advice on scientific issues. People had less trust for scientists viewed as employed by government than for independent ones.

But the Royal Society's main concern is the increasing emphasis placed by the media on scientific announcements that have not been cross-checked by independent scientists in the field before publication – the process known as peer review.

"The suspicion we have is that most people don't know what 'peer review' means," said Bob Ward, who will co- ordinate the steering group. "Most would probably think it involves asking the House of Lords." In fact, peer review is the standard method used to ensure that scientific work described in papers has been rigorous. Fraud can still slip through the net despite it, but makes up a tiny proportion of the millions of scientific papers published every year.

Of the three cases cited, however, only Professor Pusztai's work was not peer-reviewed. When it was, the reviewers refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods – notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made.

The Bell Laboratories work was withdrawn after publication when it was found to be faked, while the Nature paper remains problematic, with some green pressure groups insisting that it was withdrawn only because commercial interests exerted pressure on one of the reviewers. Nature denies the claim. The MMR studies are still the subject of intense debate, despite investigations by the Department of Health showing no link between MMR and autism.

The Science in Society committee noted: "Whether it is exaggerated fears over the safety of vaccines or false hopes of 'miracle cures' for cancer, inaccurate and misleading accounts, particularly when publicised through the mass media, can have serious adverse consequences for the public."

But the rapid expansion of scientific publications has led to more chances for incorrect or insufficiently reviewed work to be published, especially on the Net through online journals or on scientists' own websites.

The group aims to finish its study by September and report before the end of the year. The 13 members are scientists, publishers, journalists and representatives of the public.

The science of deception how the experts were (almost) conned


Jan Hendrik Schön, above, seemed likely to win the Nobel physics prize: he produced scores of papers on "nanotechnology", claiming to have made microscopic transistors – including one consisting of a single molecule – that would revolutionise computing. Then in April last year somebody at Bell Labs, where the 32-year-old worked, told an outside scientist to re-examine Dr Schön's data. They found impossible duplications, including two identical graphs that claimed to be for different devices and conditions. An investigation by Bell Labs concluded the data was bogus, and Nature and Science, which had published the papers, called for them to be retracted. Dr Schön was fired; he is unlikely to work in science again.

GM corn in Mexico

In November 2001 a team of scientists claimed in an article in the journal Nature that they had found DNA from genetically modified corn in traditional corn being grown in Oaxaca in Mexico. If confirmed, this would have been prima facie evidence that genes could jump directly from GM plants into related species, and make the prospect of "superweeds", resistant to herbicides, more likely. GM corn is illegal in in Mexico, however. Before the paper was published, one of its three anonymous expert reviewers said the science was flawed, and that it should not be published. Nature first published the paper but then in an unprecedented move decided to retract it, without the authors requesting such a retraction. Green groups blamed pressure from the agrochemical industry, but Nature insisted there were "problems with the evidence".

Element 118

In 1999 researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California said they had created the 118th element in the periodic table, which starts with hydrogen (element 1). Uranium (92) is the last naturally occurring element; larger "transuranic" ones can be created only by nuclear reactions, in reactors or laboratories.

Element 118 intrigued scientists because they thought it would be relatively stable; other transuranic elements decay in fractions of a second. But in 2001 after failing to reproduce the product, and re-examining the original experimental data files, the laboratory retracted its claim. One of the 15 researchers was found to have faked results, and was fired. Element 118 remains undiscovered.