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Whither The Revered Scientist?

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Mon, 05 Nov 2007 05:48:15 -0500
Archived: Mon, 05 Nov 2007 05:48:15 -0500
Subject: Whither The Revered Scientist?

Source: The Toronto Star - Ontario, Canada


Nov 04, 2007 04:30 AM

Whither The Revered Scientist?

Down the tubes, the public seems to think, in the face of market
pressures, bungled crises, ethical lapses

Peter Calamai
Science Writer

After two days of provocative ideas and spirited exchanges at an
international gathering recently in Toronto, British museum
curator Robert Bud neatly summed up the collective wisdom.

"The scientists are terrified."

This widespread angst among scientists has been sparked by
evidence that the traditional social compact between science and
the public has been irrevocably sundered. Put bluntly, much of
the public no longer implicitly trusts either scientists or
their pronouncements about everything from climate change to the
safety of children's vaccines.

And that matters, not just because of the call on taxpayers to
fund increasingly costly research, but also because the impact
of science and technology on our lives seems to mount by the

"It is difficult to think of anything we do in public life that
doesn't pass through the window of science and technology,"
observed Sheila Jasanoff, a professor at Harvard's John F.
Kennedy School of Government who delivered one of two evening
public lectures at the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio.

Yet judging from the tenor of the meeting, restoring some
measure of the lost trust will require scientists to rethink the
basic tenets of their calling and to fundamentally renegotiate
their relationships with the public.

The public, too, will need to accept a more active role,
examining critically issues such as who benefits from advances
in science and technology, who owns the intellectual property,
and how it will be applied.

"Being better informed is not enough, the public must also be
empowered," said Peter Broks, author of Understanding Popular

Public unease and outright mistrust concerning science has
repeatedly cropped up in opinion polling in recent years::

Almost one in four of 1,000 adults surveyed for the British
Royal Society in 2002 didn't trust scientists in general to tell
the truth.

A 2004 survey of 2,000 adult Canadians for federal science
departments found almost 30 per cent expressing concern that
science is "going too far and is hurting society rather than
helping it."

The largest ever survey of public values and attitudes toward
science and technology involved face-to-face interviews in 2005
with almost 33,000 adults in 32 European countries. Four in five
said that the authorities should formally oblige scientists to
respect ethical standards, a result widely interpreted as
indicating a lack of trust in scientists to police themselves.

Reasons put forward for this unease are many and varied,
including the blurring of the lines between science, business
and government, the increasing complexity of questions that
science is called upon to answer and a general societal mistrust
of institutions.

As further evidence of how seriously this angst is being taken,
the Toronto meeting came on the heels of publication of a seven-
point ethics code for research scientists portrayed as the
counterpart of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians.

This new code already binds all government scientists in
Britain, where it was developed, and is being promoted worldwide
by Sir David King, the U.K. government chief scientific advisor.

"We want to get the idea across to the public that scientists
can be trusted," King told an interviewer, "if they live by the

It's unlikely to be that simple, judging by the September "Trust
in Science" workshop here, which drew more than 60 participants
from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. The driving force behind it
was something called the Cluster for the Humanistic and Social
Studies of Science, just launched with $2 million in federal

The participants were overwhelmingly academics from the
humanities and social sciences who examine the history,
philosophy and impact of technology, as opposed to researchers
from the natural sciences, medicine and life sciences. Indeed,
knowledge among the participants about those other sciences was
highly variable.

In their own fields, however, the participants have carried out
pioneering work into public trust in science, with case studies
covering such widely varied topics as Toronto's SARS outbreak
and the deadly levee breach in New Orleans.

A repeated theme among workshop participants was that many
scientists still act as if they possess the "facts," while the
public merely has "opinions."

In reality, however, scientists are increasingly expressing
opinions, and laypersons sometimes possess greater expertise
than the scientists, especially in the case of rare medical

Philip Mirowski of the University of Notre Dame laid a large
part of the blame for a loss of public trust in science on three
factors. First, the withdrawal of governments from even
attempting to manage science, thus ceding priorities to the
whims of the marketplace; second, outsourcing of research and
development by corporations, meaning the demise of anything that
could be called national science strengths; and third, the
transformation of scientific research into a "fungible"
commodity, so it is essentially interchangeable.

"If you buy your science and I buy my science, then how can it
act as an arbiter of anything?" Mirowski asked.

Trust in science also suffers when scientists can't come up with
definitive answers quickly enough to respond to public concerns,
as illustrated by analysis of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto
and the continuing controversy over vaccination and autism in

Alan Richardson, a philosophy professor at the University of
British Columbia, reached his conclusions after studying reports
from the two major SARS inquiries. He noted unfounded advice
from experts for the public to stay away from Chinatown.

"All decisions were decisions under ignorance, because there was
no reliable data during the outbreak," he said. "It didn't

But the greatest damage may have been inflicted by the
observation in the reports from both Dr. Andrew Naylor and
Ontario Justice Archie Campbell: that the public health system
failed in the SARS outbreak

"The public health system can only work in a structure of public
trust," Richardson said. "Saying it failed probably means that
public compliance will be harder to achieve in any future

Jennifer Keelan, a University of Toronto professor of public
health sciences, has been studying the clash between scientists
and activists who blame their children's autism on low levels of
mercury preservative used to avoid contamination in multi-dose

"Mistrust is an understatement to describe the level of vitriol
in the debate," she said.

In effect, a scientific stalemate exists. Some research is said
to show an "association" between the mercury preservative and
autism in lab animals. Yet epidemiologists don't have large
enough population surveys to rule out such long-shot adverse

Keelan said the activists aren't anti-science, like many anti-
vaccination groups. Nor do they promote "junk" science. They
simply want the scientists to investigate different avenues.

"Will the outputs of science be markedly different if the
opportunity exists for citizens to pose questions?" asked

Scientists might ask themselves about the erosion of the
traditional trust relationships among researchers, who once
readily exchanged things like specialized strains of mice or
reagents, custom chemicals used in experiments.

Increasingly such exchanges are now circumscribed by material
transfer agreements, complex legal documents that spell out
details like liability and indemnification, due diligence and
standards for care. Some even feature "reach-through" clauses,
guaranteeing the supplier of the materials a share in any
subsequent commercialization because of subsequent research done

Use of these agreements is exploding. In 1998, the University of
Toronto handled about 30. This year, +*officials have reviewed

Similar growth at U.S. universities prompted this wry workshop
comment from Notre Dame's Mirowski:

"Why should the public trust science when it is becoming
apparent that scientists less and less trust each other?"

Star science writer Peter Calamai, based in Ottawa, was a
panellist at the Trust in Science workshop, which paid his
travel expenses to attend.

[Thanks to 'The Norm' for the lead]

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