Scientists must lead the public debate over the ethics of their work

Share

Science is the new economics. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, it was economics that politicians struggled to understand, to turn into workable public policy and to communicate to people. Today, the dismal science is a flat millpond of truths accepted the world over: free trade, sound money and lightly managed competition. It is science that is contested and difficult, which causes politicians to falter and about which their publics are sceptical.

Science is the new economics. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, it was economics that politicians struggled to understand, to turn into workable public policy and to communicate to people. Today, the dismal science is a flat millpond of truths accepted the world over: free trade, sound money and lightly managed competition. It is science that is contested and difficult, which causes politicians to falter and about which their publics are sceptical.

Suspicion of science and scientists is an ancient theme. When Archimedes leapt from his bath shouting "Eureka!" there were probably villagers around who shook their heads and warned of the loss of jobs in the cheap jewellery market. Galileo was persecuted, while the mad, bad and dangerous scientist has been a staple of popular fiction from Dr Frankenstein through Dr Jekyll to Dr Strangelove.

Aptly, Peter Sellers' portrayal of Strangelove featured among the hundreds of papers reported at the British Association for the Advancement of Science this week, as scientists identified the "anarchic hand syndrome" which could have caused his involuntary Nazi salutes.

Dr Strangelove is interesting because it represented the dark side of popular attitudes to science at a time (1964) when optimism was probably uppermost. Possibly because of the historical accident of the democratic nations discovering the atom bomb during the Second World War, the Fifties and Sixties were a scientifically upbeat period, almost as brashly confident as the Victorian age of discovery.

The failure of nuclear power to deliver its early utopian promise of cheap, clean, limitless energy began a long slide of disillusionment - culminating recently in the BSE scandal which unfairly undermined our faith in "experts". Scientists are less trusted than they were to make the right decisions about human cloning, embryo research or genetically modified food.

The trouble is that politicians are trusted even less, which opens up an opportunity for the new irrationalists, from Prince Charles denouncing genetic manipulation on religious grounds to anti-abortion fundamentalists demanding an end to embryo research. That way lies a new dark age.

The real arguments are not about science itself, which is currently enjoying something of a renaissance in this country, with most of the public - despite the doubts of the irrationalists - engaged with the excitement of discovery. The arguments are about the application of scientific discoveries and the means by which democratic societies decide what is right and wrong. Technological advance presents us with different decisions, but the morality that has to be applied does not change. Some years ago doctors would not have been able to separate the conjoined twins whose case will be decided by the Appeal Court next week, but similarly difficult decisions had to be taken even in King Solomon's day.

Sadly, our political leaders do not seem to have Solomon's qualities so they might be able to lead public opinion through some of the harder questions thrown up by scientific progress. Tony Blair in particular is compromised by his uncritical adoption of the enthusiasm of Lord Sainsbury, a Labour Party donor and government minister, for biotechnology. If the Government is to pronounce with authority on questions of genetics, it must be - and appear to be - above the commercial interests involved.

Meanwhile it is up to the scientists to take a lead. At the British Association this week they have shown they have a flair for producing headlines. They need to use their increasing media savvy to engage more vigorously in public debate about the ethical dimension of their work.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas