mark_henderson's picture
Head of Communications, Wellcome Trust; Author, The Greek Manifesto
Consulting the public about science isn't always a waste of time — but consulting bioethicists often is

I used to take the view that public consultations about science policy were pointless. While the idea of asking ordinary people's opinions about controversial research sounds quite reasonable, it is astonishingly difficult to do well.

When governments canvass about issues such as biotechnology or embryo research, what usually happens is that the whole exercise gets captured by special interests.

A vocal minority with strong opinions that are already widely known and impervious to argument — think Greenpeace and the embryo-rights lobby — get their responses in early and often. The much larger proportion of people who consider themselves neutral, open to persuasion, uninformed or uninterested rarely bother to take part. Public opinion is then deemed to have spoken, without reflecting true public opinion at all. Wouldn't it be better, I thought, to let scientists get on with their research, subject to occasional oversight by specialist panels with appropriate ethical expertise?

Well, to a point. Public consultations can indeed be worse than useless, particularly when the British Government has done the consulting: its exercises on GM crops and embryo research laws were particularly ill-judged. As Sir David King said recently, they have taught us what not to do.

Their failure, though, has stimulated some interesting thinking that has convinced me that it is possible to engage ordinary people in quite complex scientific issues, without letting the usual suspects shout everybody else down.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's recent work on cytoplasmic hybrid embryos is a case in point. The traditional part of the exercise had familiar results: pro-lifers and anti-genetic engineering groups mobilised, so 494 of the 810 written submissions were hostile. Careful questioning, however, established that almost all these came from people who oppose all embryo research in all circumstances.

A more scientific poll found 61 per cent backing for interspecies embryos, if these were to be used for medical research. Detailed deliberative workshops revealed that once the rationale for the experiments was properly explained, large majorities overcame "instinctive repulsion" and supported the work.

If consultations are properly run in this way, there is a lot to be said for them. They can actually build public understanding of potentially controversial research, and shoot the fox of science's shrillest critics.

In many ways, they are rather more helpful than seeking advice from bioethicists, whose importance to ethical research I've increasingly come to doubt. It's not that philosophy of science is not a worthwhile academic discipline — it can be stimulating and thought-provoking. The problem is that a bioethicist can almost always be found to support any position.

Leon Kass and John Harris are both eminent bioethicists, yet the counsel you would expect them to give on embryo research laws is going to be rather different. Politicians — or scientists — can and do deliberately appoint ethicists according to their pre-existing world views, then trumpet their advice as somehow independent and authoritative, as if their subject were physics.

If specialist bioethics has a role to play in regulation of science, it is in framing the questions that researchers and the public at large should consider. It can't just be a fig leaf for decisions people were always going to make anyway.