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Trusting the experts. Who should have governance over scientific decisions?

Who should be making decisions about stem cell research, biotechnology or nanotechnology? Half of Europeans, Americans and Canadians are willing to trust scientific experts to make decisions based on scientific evidence to advance technologies, finds new research.

Social Values and the Governance of Science by George Gaskell from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Edna Einsiedel (University of Calgary), William Hallman (Rutgers University), Susanna Hornig Priest (University of South Carolina), Jonathan Jackson (LSE) and Johannus Olsthoorn (Canadian Health Services Research Foundation) is published today (Friday 23 December) in Science magazine.

Research by social scientists in Europe, Canada, and the US on issues of 'science governance' and the role of social values found that about 50 per cent of the public in all three regions gave a vote of confidence to scientific experts focusing on scientific evidence to advance science technology.

The surveys identified four groups of people:

  • Scientific elitists - those who preferred scientists and scientific evidence 
  • Moral elitists - those who preferred experts using a moral and ethical basis
  • Scientific populists - those who preferred publics making decisions based on science
  • Moral populists - those who wanted publics to make decisions based on moral and ethical criteria.

'Scientific elitists' were the largest group in each region, with 52 per cent in Europe, 49 per cent in Canada, and 54 per cent in the US.

But what of the other half? Just over a third of respondents wanted experts to make decisions on the basis of moral and ethical issues, and one quarter of respondents wanted to give the public a role in decision-making on these new technologies.

These findings illustrate the challenges governments face in making decisions solely based on the science when the technologies involve moral and ethical issues.

'Governance relates to questions about who controls science and technology, who makes the decisions and on what criteria,' said Professor George Gaskell of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the lead author of the article.

'The public know these technologies come with value-laden questions,' said Professor Gaskell. 'That there is not a resounding majority in favour of sound science and a significant minority opted for ordinary people making these decisions suggests that people recognize the sometimes difficult dilemmas these technologies pose.'

People's views about who should rule in science relate to what they think about stem cell research and GM food. While the scientific elitists were more likely to approve these technologies, the moral populists were more inclined to veto them, in part because they have less trust in institutions in society. Interestingly, in the US they tend to be more religious as well.

The authors argue that the public expect and want science and technology to solve problems, but a substantial minority also want a say in deciding which problems are worth solving.

Gaskell said: 'People ask, 'what sort of society do we want and how can new technology help in achieving this?' This is a matter of values; science alone cannot provide the answer. And if this is taken on board it is not merely a matter of attracting public support for an agenda set by science and scientists. Rather is about seeing the public as participants in science policy with whom a shared vision of socially viable science and technological innovation can be achieved.'

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Notes for editors:

The surveys were conducted with 25,000 Europeans, 2,000 Canadians and 1,200 Americans.

Respondents were asked who should make decisions on such controversial technologies as stem cell research, biotechnology and nanotechnology. They were first asked to choose between two kinds of experts: scientific experts or moral and ethical experts. They were then asked which criterion was more important: scientific evidence or moral and ethical evidence.

Social Values and the Governance of Science by George Gaskell from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Edna Einsiedel, William Hallman, Susanna Hornig Priest, Jonathan Jackson and Johannus Olsthoorn is published in Science magazine, out Friday 23 December.

23 December 2005

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