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

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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.

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