The wise scientist listens to public opinion

Taken from a lecture delivered by the President of the Royal Society to mark the end of his five-year term of office

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The scientific community needs to conduct a dialogue with the public, or rather, with several different publics. There has been a great deal of effective work on public understanding of science during the 15 years since the Royal Society published the Bodmer report on the subject.

The scientific community needs to conduct a dialogue with the public, or rather, with several different publics. There has been a great deal of effective work on public understanding of science during the 15 years since the Royal Society published the Bodmer report on the subject.

What has increasingly come to the fore, however, is that talking to and working with the public are not enough: scientists also need to find ways of listening better to the public. The watchword now is dialogue.

But how does an expert group have a dialogue with a non-expert "public"? And what does science want to get out of it?

First, the dialogue is about science's "licence to practise". Science is, necessarily, run by scientists, but it is ultimately society that allows science to go ahead. Scientists need to make sure that society goes on doing so. So scientists need input from non-experts to make sure we are aware of the boundaries they would wish to put to our licence. And, conversely, we need good channels of communication if we want to extend those boundaries, for example, into new areas of research (such as embryonic stem cells) or new research methods (such as genetically modified plants and animals).

Second, the public has expectations of how it will benefit from its investment in research. Scientists must be aware of these expectations, and we should pay attention to them when setting broad research priorities; but public expectations have to feature somewhere in the process.

Nevertheless, scientists must not lose their nerve so that they concentrate only on research that appears relevant at the time. The research agenda should be set by scientists, and they should have the freedom to change it in the light of new discoveries. The advances of science have dramatically improved human health and welfare and relieved the burdens of labour, and facilitated travel and communication.

Many of these advances have come not from a direct attack, but from quite unexpected directions. The microwave oven did not come from someone trying to make a more efficient stove, nor the laser from trying to make a brighter light. It is only in a cultural environment which encourages free scientific enquiry that high-quality innovative science can be carried out.

Third, the non-expert public may have strong views on the use to be made of the outputs of research. Unless scientists are in close touch with these views, we risk being taken by surprise on occasions when these views differ from those of the practitioners of research.

Dialogue is not a public-relations exercise. Rather, it is science behaving responsibly by responding to a demand for more public involvement in the aims of science, and more public accountability and transparency from science. It is part of science's "social contract".

A contract puts obligations on both parties. If society grants science its licence to practise, it must also grant the conditions under which research can be practised effectively. These conditions include freedom for scientists to take risks and the freedom for scientists to work without fear of vilification, intimidation and personal attack.

What of the Royal Society's role in this? Yesterday, in my last Annual Address as President of the Royal Society, I was delighted to announce that, through the generosity of a £1m donation from the Kohn Foundation, we will be launching a range of new initiatives aimed at facilitating a wider dialogue over the next five years.

The Royal Society was established in 1660 to embody the radical notion that critical observation and controlled experiment are the most secure routes to knowledge about the natural world. That remains our guiding principle. It remains as pertinent as ever.

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