Nature 432, 271 (18 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/432271a; Published online 17 November 2004

Let's be sensible about public participation

Dick Taverne1

  1. Chair of Sense About Science, House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW, UK


We must face the fact that science — like art — is not a democratic activity.


Your Editorial "Going public" (Nature 431, 883; 200410.1038/431883a ), like the think-tank Demos, supports the fashionable demand by a group of sociologists for more democratic science, including more 'upstream' engagement of the public and its involvement in setting research priorities. Demos goes further and supports a 'needs test' for licensing new products or services by companies. It also argues that we, the public, should know who owns and controls new technologies, and who benefits, before they are developed.

If the Demos policy had been followed in the past, we would have neither electricity nor the laser, to name only two examples, because no practical uses were foreseen for either. As your Editorial admits, public-engagement exercises in the United States have led patient lobby groups to press the National Institutes of Health for less basic research and more drug development. Because of public demand, large sums are spent on developing drugs with Viagra-like properties rather than on medicines for people in developing countries, and a widespread public consultation exercise in Oregon has found strong opposition to spending limited public funds on AIDS or mental health.

In practice, greater involvement of 'the public' in the 'upstream' development stage of science means involvement of special-interest groups. When the UK Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission was set up, the 'public' representatives were the chair of Greenpeace, the chair of the Soil Association, the executive director of GeneWatch and the programme adviser to the Green Alliance. No wonder the 'GM Nation' exercise in public consultation was a fiasco.

Of course democratically elected governments must decide how public funds for science are allocated. Of course sensible consultation helps development of policy: the debate on stem-cell research in the United Kingdom was a good example. Of course more openness and transparency are to be encouraged where possible. But let us not display unthinking subservience to the principle of participation. In Britain, involvement by victims of rail accidents in deciding policy on railway safety has led to the investment of billions of pounds to save some five lives a year. Meanwhile, twice that number die on British roads every day. The fact is that science, like art, is not a democratic activity. You do not decide by referendum whether the Earth goes round the Sun.