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Newsletter 18th January 2008

Can science be democratic?

Euractiv.com, a Brussels-based news and comment service, recently reported an interview with French philosopher Michel Serres. According to him, "Politicians and scientists need to listen to the people and strive towards more democracy in science by means of interactive new technologies such as blogs." But can science really be democratic? Should it be democratic?

The issue highlighted by M Serres is essentially that non-scientists have concerns about scientific developments and therefore need to have their questions answered rather than simply have the science explained. It is a further criticism of the now deeply unfashionable "deficit model". According to this, if people don't understand science, then it must be explained to them – their knowledge deficit needs to be filled – and then they will accept it. In practice, attempts to increase Public Understanding of Science (as the movement was called) have been unsuccessful in bridging the gap between those with scientific training and those without.

Public Understanding of Science has therefore been replaced by Engagement. Rather than trying to teach people science, scientists should listen to concerns and begin dialogues. This approach has been taken further, for example by the think tank Demos, who have promoted "upstream engagement". In this model, non-scientists should be involved in the early stages of research programmes, and their input should be used to guide their direction.

The problem is that, while encouraging greater scientific literacy and understanding of science would seem to most people to be a good thing, the vast majority of non-scientists simply do not want to engage in the debate. Whatever they say in opinion polls, their interest is not sufficiently high to take the next step. However, the minority who would want to become involved often do so from a position of deep belief or ideological commitment. Typically, it is activists who get involved, so upstream engagement is potentially a charter for environmentalist NGOs to control the public science agenda. Labelling such an approach as democratic seems to need a very elastic definition of the term.

Inevitably, in modern societies, people's skills become more specialised. Polymaths are few and far between, and even scientists in apparently-related fields may not properly understand each other's work. But, no matter how specialised their skills, scientists and others are part of society rather than separate from it. Attempts to bridge the supposed gap between "science and society" are in essence attempts to give control to as small group of the (mainly) scientifically illiterate who distrust science.

What we should be doing is encouraging people to think about the application of science. Pure research is a voyage of discovery, seeking knowledge for its own sake. Yes, there will in some cases – medical research, for example – be some long-term aim in view, but often any practical application for knowledge is impossible to foresee. It will make no difference to our everyday lives if the Higgs boson is discovered in the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but doubtless a workable, testable "theory of everything" could permit profound changes at some stage. But that's not the point of the research. Basic science has to be left to scientists, and we should no more think of "democratising" it than taking control of any other specialisation within society.

Cloned meat

This week, the US Food and Drugs Administration declared meat from cloned animals to be safe to eat. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture requested a continued moratorium by the industry in supplying such meat to the food chain. This illustrates once again that perception is as important as rationality. Cloning is a concept which most people probably don't understand, but it has connotations of meddling with Nature and it has been in the news largely in relation to the use of human stem cells in medical research. Understandably, perhaps, the "yuck factor" comes into play.

On the other hand, it is more rational (and quite legitimate) to look at the outcome rather than the technique used, and to compare cloning to the enormous changes made by conventional selective breeding of cattle, sheep and other livestock in the few thousand years since their domestication. Breeders are trying to select particularly fine individual animals and then provide a number of "twins" via cloning, which can then be used to breed more stock conventionally. Put like that, there may be less resistance. And, of course, the meat could be eaten with potatoes, which are all propagated by cloning.

GM ban in France

Despite the publicity-grabbing of the "peasant farmer" José Bové, many people have felt that France, as one of the most important farming nations in the EU, would actually be among the first to embrace crop biotechnology. Indeed, the signs were there: French farmers had drawn a lesson from their Spanish competitors and begun to grow GM maize in significant quantities.

But then, in a surprise move, President Sarkozy put a temporary ban in place late last year. Now, prime minister Fillon has activated a "safeguard clause" based on the controversial report of a panel set up by the government. This has been attacked by many deputies from the ruling party, as well as by the Spanish government. This ban on cultivation could be lifted when the current re-evaluation of the Bt maize by the Commission is complete, a move which would be welcomed by the majority of French farmers. In the meantime, such cynical political interference is very regrettable.

Ethanol from waste

According to a report in the Daily Mail, General Motors is collaborating with Coskata, a US biotech company, to develop a new source of bio-ethanol. The plan is to process the organic waste from domestic rubbish, and a pilot plant is due to come on-stream this year. A commercial scale plant could be built by 2011. Assuming the economics are sound, this makes a great deal of sense and highlights once again that, in the longer term, biofuels have great potential, despite the current bad press.

The Coskata process is three-step: the organic material is converted to syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) which is used as a feedstock for micro-organisms to produce ethanol, which finally is recovered for use. Processing household waste into a valuable end product illustrates one of the key factors in the increasing use of bio-processing: there is really no such thing as "waste". In particular, anything which can be used as a fermentation source can potentially be turned into something useful.