Who will be the master of the science genie?

be more open about their work
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The nerds are out of control; but it's not their fault - it's ours for being stupid, lazy and credulous about science. This century has been dominated by the creation of atomic and chemical weaponry, transformed by the design of reliable birth control and revolutionised by the silicon chip. The planet has been shrunken by the satellite, the internal combustion and jet engines. Yet we still don't seem to get the point. The unprecedented speed and spread of technological discovery is the only thing that matters; yet we do not, will not, treat it seriously or take control of it.

Did many of us care that the Internet virtually crashed this week? Not really. But give it three years, when Bill Gates of Microsoft promises (threatens?) that half of all Americans will be wired up, and doing their business, shopping and being paid through the Net; get ready for ructions. Closer to home, the Norwich Union Building Society discovered to its embarrassment this week that rumours circulated on e-mail were not, as the correspondents probably thought, the Nineties equivalent of coffee-machine gossip; they were, instead, nearly half-a-million pounds' worth of libel. And let us not even contemplate the extent to which the interactive media are becoming the highway for anti-human pornography and racism; let us merely note that things which could never have found an audience of a hundred before can now be made available to millions at the touch of a mouse.

This week's advance for science is the so-called artificial womb produced in Japan, which will no doubt trigger yet another dumb and ill-informed "moral" debate about scientists' right to play God. The facts don't actually support that this is what's happening - the "womb" is really just a superior piece of intensive care kit - but it carries the echoes of Frankenstein's doomed attempt to animate life without divine intervention.

We shudder, and say that it can't happen here - but we've said that about virtually every scientific advance since the war. If things gets too sticky, as in the case of fertility techniques or BSE, our elected representatives throw up their hands in despair and cry "I don't know what's going on" and turn it over to a committee of philosophers, who have even less clue than the politicians. Last and most desperate of all, it falls into the hands of the lawyers, whose very rationale is to make the issues unintelligible. The poor naive scientist, whose only interest is in understanding why some little corner of the universe works, and to try to explain it to the rest of us, is left carrying the can for public policy.

Our problem as a society is that scientific discovery is moving along so fast - we have turned out more new inventions in the past 50 years than in the whole of previous human history - that our culture can do little more than consume its products. Our democracy has no tools by which to give the people real choices about how best to use new knowledge. Yes, the market will ultimately provide a crude measure of the people's assent or otherwise; but it will not do the other things that a proper democracy does - such as protect the rights of the vulnerable, or try to combat a debasement of public tastes and morals.

Few of us have much clue how the machines we use work, what makes them go wrong or what impact they have on the wider environment - until the damage is done. In relation to the motor car, for example, we are only now closing the door on the stable years after most of the horses have bolted. And we blame the scientists.

As a society we are still ambivalent about scientists. Having served my own time at the bench in our leading temple to science and technology, Imperial College, I can confirm that those who labour to create latter- day miracles are no more or less remarkable than anyone else. They like football, go to movies, have children and moan about their bosses. Yet our culture carries two hugely oversimplified pictures of them. One is Indiana Jones - wearing learning so lightly that you wouldn't notice the horn-rimmed spectacles and white coat, and given to glamorous adventures on the edge of the unknown. Into this category we can put handsome doctors who produce new treatments and techniques to confound disease and death. We can also point to the astronauts who risk their lives to see if The Truth Really Is Out There. Our Man on Mir must already on be on his way to his first million from the movie rights to his story alone.

But there's another image of the scientist which is more disturbing, and in some ways closer to the truth. This is not because scientists are bad guys, but because we fail to care enough about them and their work. This image is that of the super-brainy, hyperactive child, endlessly curious and intrusive, poking his or her fingers into every dark hole just to see what's there. With children, we erect a protective framework, making the home a little safer, being a smidgeon more vigilant. But with atom- smashers, or gene therapy, or space vehicles, you can't just say "That's far enough". With the sums involved and the huge promises made for the enhancement of the human condition, who could say no?

I don't go all the way with those who say that scientific advance is the new religion. Religious belief does not, by and large, involve true revelation or discovery; prophets tend to tell us what we want to hear in terms that we already understand. But science does demand faith and it does have its high priests. Scientists introduce us to things we didn't even know were there, and in doing so they transform our way of living. Without the steam engine and railway, there would be no great cities. Without the printing press there would have been no revolutions. Without the Pill, there would be no march towards equality of choice for women. Mostly science has made things cheaper, better or simply more widely available. Occasionally it has offered a completely new human experience - being able to talk to someone you can't see or hear with the unaided voice via the telephone is possibly the best example of the latter. But all these changes come to most of us accidentally, or at the behest of clever, powerful or rich people.

For a democracy, this is not good enough. We are not all equal in talents; but we should all have the right to a say in the shape of our culture. However, we can't use that right without three things happening. The scientists have to be forced by the media and the Government to be more open about their work; the days of the refusal to publish for commercial or professional reasons should be numbered under the Government's Freedom of Information plans. Second, we have to be educated in the language of science. That means tougher standards in maths, and more hours given over to science in the curriculum, either by extending the school year, or by dropping other subjects.

Third, the task of deciding on how we handle the consequences of scientific discovery should be kept out of the courts if at all possible - lawyers are neither equipped nor able to guide us by themselves. How one might do this is hard to say, and it would be an issue that the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary, both lawyers themselves, might turn over to someone with the right qualifications. The name of the distinguished physicist Lord Flowers comes to mind. Or, if they wanted a scientist with a keen mind, legal training and vast experience of public life, with lots of time on her hands, they don't have to look very far. Step forward, Baroness Thatcher.