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Hodgson Address: Science, society, democracy


Hodgson Address: Science, society, democracy

[Opening remarks to the Being Human conference, Te Papa, Wellington]

Welcome, everybody. And thanks to the Royal Society, Te Papa and the Stout Centre for organising this conference.

You're here to talk and think about the connections and the missed connections between science and culture, about the fear and conflict that arises when the gap between them gets too wide.

As Minister of Research, Science and Technology I often find myself on duty at that intersection between science and society. When the public get anxious about where science is going they tend to look to government to step in and direct the traffic. Likewise scientists complain to people like me when they feel they are being held back, unjustifiably, from making their contribution to society.

The public taste for science and technology waxes and wanes. Great technological leaps forward - steam power, electricity, nuclear fission, the microchip, the space race – have created surges of enthusiasm, scepticism and sometimes the hard slap of a backlash. Great advances in scientific knowledge have also sent ripples through society. Think, for example, of the thousands of 19th century amateur naturalists inspired by Darwin.

We are now in an age where the life sciences are surging ahead in scope and power. Again there is a fresh sense of excitement for many of us. The biotechnologies that spring from this new knowledge seem to have enormous potential for enhancing the quality of human life –- and for our ability to enjoy it without further degrading our environment.

But because this new knowledge concerns the nature of living things, there is also a widespread uncertainty about how far we should reach. For many people it is more than uncertainty — it is anxiety, or fear. Their question has been repeated by the organisers of this conference: Are we getting too big for our boots?

Personally, I am an enthusiast for science. I can't help it. I love a good idea, a brilliant question, an original and ground-breaking answer. Perhaps more meaningfully, some might say, I am the product of a scientific education.

But I know that a great many people are not like me, and nor do I think they should be. I am on the side of science. That is my job. But I do not see society as an opponent. I do not say that you are either with science, or you are against it.

If there is a persistent failing in the way science considers its relationship to society, I think it is the assumption that when a gap opens up it is because science has moved ahead of the community. There is often, I think, a tendency for the advocates of science to think that uncertainty, anxiety or fear is always due, at some level, to ignorance — that if only the public can be made to understand the science, their concerns will naturally evaporate.

Better, I think, to acknowledge simply that science and society sometimes move apart. Fear is not necessarily irrational. People can be uncertain and anxious for good reason. A scientific community that addresses the public as if it is at the blackboard and the public are at their desks will not win the mandate it seeks. Science cannot win trust from a position of arrogance.

I do not mean that science should make no effort to educate people about its progress, to explain itself to the public. Of course it must do that. It's just that that is not enough. It is trite to say knowledge is power, yet we all know that to be true. The public are only too aware of the power of scientific knowledge. It is a power they are not prepared to leave entirely in the hands of scientists and their clients, and they are quite right. Science is society's tool and the scientific community must share its power, not expect to be trusted with it in return for a bit of patient explanation.

Politics and government are the means by which we collectively express where we want to go and where we do not want to go as a society. Some people say politics and government should not be able to "interfere" with the progress of science, as if science was an independent cell in the body politic. Clearly you are not looking at one of them.

Democracy is slow, messy and frustrating. It is not a handbrake on science, however: it's the road. Science, like business, needs the stability, confidence and trust built by democratic processes if it is to advance sustainably.

I certainly wouldn't say that we have, in 2002, perfected the democratic processes that connect science and society and help us bridge the gap when they drift apart. Yet nor are we failing dismally. I would point to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, which you will be discussing after lunch, as a pretty successful example.

Of course we cannot reach for a Royal Commission on every issue of public anxiety about science. And no doubt many of the more routine democratic processes by which society and science speak to one another can be improved. No doubt, in future, new processes will have to be created. The Bioethics Council will be the first of them.

I hope this day provides you with some useful reflections on these matters. It is encouraging in itself that a conference like this is being held and that it has attracted such interest and such a good range of speakers. I wish you well.


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