LETTER:How to produce trust in science

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The Independent Online
From Dr P. J. Gates

Sir: Ruth McKernan's lament over lack of public trust in scientists ("Mad boffins and other science fictions", 7 March) fails to mention one important cause of this situation: to an increasing degree, scientists have a vested interest in the financial success of the fruits of their research, either indirectly through continuity of industrial funding or directly through acquisition of patents. This is particularly so in the rapidly developing fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering, which have attracted much public attention.

In such a situation, there is no reason why the public should perceive scientists as anything other than highly specialised entrepreneurs; and the plea to "trust me, I'm a scientist" becomes no more compelling than "trust me, I'm a futures dealer".

Trust in science will grow if its practitioners can convince the public that they are acutely aware and deeply concerned about the wider social effects of their inventions, to the point where they are prepared to question publically the commercial exploitation of their research.

This presents a dilemma that an increasing number of molecular biologists and geneticists will encounter: should they remain aloof from the social consequences of their research or prejudice industrial support by taking more personal responsibility for the potential consequences of the commercial exploitation of their work?

No prizes for guessing which course would raise them highest in the public esteem.

Yours,

PHIL GATES

University of Durham

Durham

8 March

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