Letter: Science must talk to the people

Sir: Trevor Phillips is right to identify the social control of science as a key problem for the next century ("Who will be the master of the science genie?", 19 July); and he is also right to see greater openness on the part of scientists, greater understanding of science by non-scientists, and avoiding over-reliance on the courts as important ingredients in its eventual solution. But I'm not sure that his advice to the Prime Minister to hand the issue over to "someone with the right qualifications" (whatever those might be) is particularly helpful.

The question is: how can we facilitate better democratic decision-making about socially sensitive issues arising out of science and technology? The answer is: by facilitating greater public participation in the relevant decision-making processes. If we persist in relying upon small numbers of supposed experts, be they natural scientists, social scientists, or policy-makers, the result will be further public disenchantment with science and with politics.

Across Europe, the hunt is on for new ways of involving the public in debate and decision-making about science and technology. Experiments are being conducted with citizens' juries, consensus conferences, deliberative opinion polls, people's parliaments and other formats that promise to bring experts and non-experts together to deliberate about public policy.

If science is to be placed at the service of democracy, then scientists and non-scientists must learn to do business together despite obvious inequalities of knowledge and expertise. We need to create new forums in which people can come together on equal terms. The new information technologies may help here, but in the end the key to success will be the political will to create new kinds of democratic institution.


Assistant Director, The Science Museum

Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Imperial College, London