Scientists are being subjected to shocking levels of personal vilification and distrust, Britain's most senior scientist has warned.
Sir Paul Nurse, the new president of the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of sciences, urged scientists to take on those critics who have cast doubt on the veracity of scientific discoveries ranging from the link between climate change and man-made carbon dioxide to the benefits of GM crops.
Sir Paul said many scientists felt under attack from critics in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, but rather than retreating into their ivory towers they needed to speak directly to the people who paid their wages.
"Scientists have got to get out there. They have to be open about what they do ... even if it does put their reputation in doubt," Sir Paul said in a BBC Horizon documentary that airs tonight. "This is far too important to be left to the polemicists and the commentators in the media. Scientists have to be there too. We've got an unholy mix of the media and the politics and it's distorting the proper reporting of science and that's a real danger to us if science is to have its proper impact on society."
Sir Paul, who won a Nobel prize for his work on cell biology, said science was used to dealing with controversies but the vilification and distrust levelled at some scientists had shocked him.
"I think today there is a new kind of battle. It's not just about ideas but whether people actually trust science... Science has created our modern world so I would like to understand why scientists are under such attack and whether scientists are partly to blame," Sir Paul said.
Climate science in particular seems to have polarised public opinion, especially in the aftermath of the leak of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, which one media commentator said had exposed the "greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world". Yet four independent inquiries have cleared the scientists involved of scientific fraud or misconduct and have explained that the most damning quotation from the emails, which talked about a "trick" to "hide the decline", referred to nothing more than a fairly standard scientific technique of splicing two sets of data.
"This seems to be the greatest scientific scandal that just didn't take place," Sir Paul said.