Julia Higgins: Scientists have to be more accountable to the public

From a speech by the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the BA Festival of Science

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The public funds science indirectly through its tax payments - which eventually fund research councils - and through public ownership of shares and investments. It has little control of the uses made of that science, but suffers any ill consequences of the applications directly, and pays again for any clean-up operation. This is a mismatch of risk and control [with which] the public is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

The public funds science indirectly through its tax payments - which eventually fund research councils - and through public ownership of shares and investments. It has little control of the uses made of that science, but suffers any ill consequences of the applications directly, and pays again for any clean-up operation. This is a mismatch of risk and control [with which] the public is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

There is just beginning a very interesting debate about how much the public can be involved in the decisions made in their name - and often using their money - about the directions scientific research should take, and the uses that should be made of any new knowledge.

It is not an option to have a referendum on the funding of each new piece of scientific research. However, we have elected political representatives. How closely should they be involved with decisions on funding science? In this country, we have had, for many years, applied the Haldane funding principles - providing the funding through quasi-independent bodies such as the research councils, but following this up by demanding high accountability. We have to find new and innovative ways of folding public concern into this process, encouraging serious debate on serious scientific questions so their views can inform political and commercial decisions being made in their name.

Scientists have a responsibility not only to do their science well, but to be open to the judgement and opinions of the community in whose name and at whose expense they are doing it.

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