Should the public have the final say on issues such as GM and nuclear, or should they be left to scientists? Geoff Watts explores the value of public engagement in research.
Who should decide on whether funding for things like GM, nanotechnology, embryonic stem cell research or particle physics goes ahead? At the moment most of the money for science lies with the research councils, to whom scientists go cap in hand year after year. That's around 3 billion pounds of public money. So should the public have more of a say?
At the moment, it seems like trust in science is at a crossroads. Whilst increasingly we believe in the power of science to benefit society, a recent MORI survey suggested that over half of us are distrustful of scientists who "tamper with nature" and believe that "rules will not stop scientists doing what they want behind closed doors". Though we face global food and energy shortages and await the next mutated animal disease pandemic, barely a third of us believe that the benefits of research into things like GM, or nuclear power are worth the risk. But are we the people, able to best judge what road science should take?
But does this disconnect between science and society matter? How important is public opinion to the direction of scientific research? Is GM, gene therapy or nuclear power simply too important to be derailed by a public that only has a very basic understanding of risk? Or should scientists not only consult the public about controversial areas of research but even allow us to direct it? In the first of two programmes, Geoff Watts asks, Does Science need the people?
Producer: Rami Tzabar.
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