Lord Winston: 'Commercial activity changes the ownership of science'

From a speech by the fertility scientist to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, meeting at Trinity College, Dublin
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The Independent Online

Funding of science to make our respective countries "competitive" is to be welcomed - but it has its downside. Science is no longer seen as an essential part of our culture or as an important expression of essential human inquisitiveness. This has grave dangers for science, though scientists often forget this. It means some expensive scientific subjects - for example, astronomy - may be increasingly underfunded because they are perceived as useless or not producing sufficient economic returns.

But my most important concern is the risk of public trust. There is a very serious danger that commercial activity could change the public perception of science. Once the pursuit of science becomes heavily geared to profit, scientists may be perceived as having vested interests and not working merely for the public good.

And with increasing commercialisation may come increasing secrecy amongst scientists. In the last three years, I have paid to go to a series of cell biology meetings in the USA where the lecturer has given some fascinating news about how a particular molecule he or she is studying seems to change cell growth or differentiation. But these lecturers have frequently been unwilling or unable to divulge the key information about the molecule - what it is, its structure, or how it is produced.

This was the very information for which the registrants attended the meeting. Commercial interest has meant that more and more scientific details may remain undisclosed.