14 July 1989 - 16 July 1989

The Pace and Complexity of Developments in Science: Social, Economics and Environmental Implications for Policy-Makers

Chair: Dr David Hamburg

Somewhat to my surprise, since I had expected this conference to turn more on the ethical, economic and political issues confronting society, as seen by laymen, from scientific and technological innovation, debate during the weekend focused primarily on the relationship between the scientific community on the one hand and the policy-makers and public on the other. In contrast to the last occasion on which a similar topic was addressed at Ditchley, there was general recognition that while it was as exciting a time for science as ever, relations with the public at large and with policy-makers were not as good as they should be. The unbounded optimism of the science community in the immediate post-war years, which had contributed to the implicit trust accorded to it by the public, had given way to greater realism and a certain distrust. For this loss of credibility there were a number of reasons: the general public’s relative illiteracy in science was the easiest to blame; but a large share of responsibility must be laid at the door of scientists, who had often exaggerated the promise of a new technology while minimising its costs and risks, and had even on occasions misled governments and the public, whether wilfully or not. The story of nuclear energy illustrated the point; and the nuclear industry was now paying the price, in terms of public mistrust, for its early hyperbole and lack of candour. There was a growing feeling among the public that science was too important to be left to the scientists and that the public should be more closely involved.

Education might, in the long term, be expected to mitigate the problem, but not everybody could become an expert and certainly not an expert in everything. It would be necessary to teach children the fundamentals of science, perhaps at an early, impressionable, age (but there could even be controversy over what were the fundamentals), to turn out people with the ability to think analytically and numerically, and finally to inculcate an understanding of the science community’s methods. Education in risk and probability theory could be particularly helpful, but needed to be handled with care. A fortiori this applied to policy-makers: contacts between them and members of the science community should be fostered (e.g. by informal groups within legislatures, both nationally and - an interesting suggestion made by one participant - internationally). International links between national institutions, such as the National Academy of Sciences (US) and the Royal Society (UK), needed to be improved.

There was much debate about the mechanisms by which scientific advice was conveyed to policy-makers. The Office of Technology Assessment established by the US Congress provided a model, although the differences between the constitutional arrangements in the US and elsewhere probably precluded any exact imitation. The principal duty of the scientist in proffering advice was to organise the case as objectively as possible, distinguishing clearly in his argument scientific fact, areas of scientific probability but no certainty, and areas where other factors, economic, ethical or political were dominant. The role of the scientist - and perhaps, in the US, of the Congress - as prophet of future trends was discussed and the point was made that there could be a duty, if not to make precise forecasts, to warn of trends where action would be too late if it was delayed until the effects could be established as scientific fact (the “Greenhouse effect” was a case in point).

It was noted too that while scientists found no difficulty in adjusting or reversing a position as new facts emerged, for the politician such adjustment, at least in the short term, was often politically difficult if not impossible; and scientists needed to take that into consideration.

A further risk was recognised: that the scientific advice given to a politician might be subject to professional bias (and might be perceived by him or the public as self-serving, e.g. in the pursuit of funds). The policymaker therefore needed an impartial adviser (or a group of advisers) whom he could trust and who would bring to their evaluation of a scientific case both specific expertise but also sound judgement. This applied in the field of defence research as well as in the civil area - notable recent failures of communication in the field of defence were discussed and there was debate whether the defence research effect in the US and the UK was at the expense of civil research, there being little spin-off, it was felt, from the one to the other. Nothing however could ensure that good decisions were taken: in the last resort it was the political leader who had to bear the responsibility, after taking into account not only the scientific case but also the costs and the political and ethical factors.

One mechanism, which had worked well in the past, was to devolve, in good time, to a standing body (e.g. the UK Health and Safety Commission) the regulation of standards in food, drugs etc, thereby relieving the policy-maker of direct responsibility.

In the field of medicine and medical research, opportunities were enormous. The prolongation of life, through “spare-part” surgery and the prevention and cure of disease, was a reality. Though the possibility of achieving longer, healthy, life could not be excluded, it brought society up against the trade-off between longevity and quality of life with all the costs to society of the additional care that longer life entailed. It was agreed, although there were, I thought, some dissentients, that the research effort should be balanced more or less equally between prevention and therapy: prevention could never be 100% and we needed to be in a position to cure what we could not prevent. The group recognised that some techniques (e.g. genetic diagnosis, in vitro fertilisation, and foetal sex determination when it led to abortion solely on the grounds of sex) raised ethical and other issues. For example, legislation might be needed to deal with cases where knowledge of a defect could, if declared, affect employment or eligibility for life or medical insurance, and, if undeclared, might be dangerous or inequitable to the employer or insurer; but it was felt generally that there were precedents and that these problems could be worked out. Nevertheless it was recognised that it was in this area that the greatest anxiety was aroused in the lay public: researchers should proceed with care, even if that meant advancing more slowly than they would wish.

A further area of concern was the inevitable cost of medical advances. With some notable exceptions, improved techniques and technologies tended to cost more and therefore to reduce access. Moreover there was a serious gap in the research effort in the field of health care, where more study of operational aspects was badly needed.

If there was a single conclusion, I think it was that much of the onus for increasing understanding of science among policy-makers and the public rested with the scientific community: scientists and scientific institutions carried a burden of responsibility for maintaining their credibility, through candour about their work, its potential and its risks (and through a readiness to expose fraud where regrettably that occurred); and must apply scientific methods to scientific policy-making, avoiding, in particular, an authoritative, even authoritarian tone, in areas where opinion, not scientific certainty, prevailed.


This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Dr David Hamburg
President and Managing Director, the Carnegie Corporation of New York; a Director, the American Ditchley Foundation


Mr Peter Benton

Director General, British Institute of Management
Sir Walter Bodmer FRS
Director of Research, Imperial Cancer Fund; Member, Council, International Union Against Cancer; Advisory Board for Research Councils
Dr Jeremy Bray MP
Member of Parliament (Labour) for Motherwell South; Opposition Spokesman on Science and Technology
Mr John Chowchat
National Officer, Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, London
Dr R N Crossett
Chief Scientist, Fisheries and Food, Ministry of Agriculture
Dr John Cullen
Chairman, Health & Safety Commission
Mr J W Fairclough
Chief Scientific Adviser, Cabinet Office
Dr J K Heath
Tutor in Biochemistry, Oriel College, Oxford
Sir John Kingman FRS
Vice Chancellor, University of Bristol; Vice Chairman, Parliamentary and Scientific Committee; Member, Council, British Technology Group; a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation
Mr John Maddox
Writer and broadcaster; Editor, Nature; Member of the Programme Committee of the Ditchley Foundation
Dr Matthew Ridley
Washington Correspondent, The Economist
Dame Margaret Weston DBE
Member, South Eastern Electricity Board; a Governor and Member of the Council of Management of the Ditchley Foundation

Dr Geraldine A Kenney-Wallace

Professor of Chemistry and of Physics, University of Toronto; Chairman, Science Council of Canada

Professor Henry Durand

Professor of Physics, University of Paris

Dr Hans-Peter Lorenzen

Head, Promotion of Technology, Innovation and Micro Electronics Department, Ministry of Science and Technology, Bonn
Dr Eckart Roloff
Scientific Editor, Rheinischer Merkur

Dr V Ramalingaswami

Special Advisor to the Executive Director, UNICEF, New York; Adjunct Professor of International Health Policy, Harvard School of Public Health

Dr Robert Barker

Provost, Cornell University; Director, Coming Inc; Member, Scientific Advisory Board, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
The Hon John Brademas
President, New York University; Chairman, Federal Reserve Bank of New York; Chairman, New York State Council on Fiscal and Economic Priorities; Member, Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government; Consultant Panel to the Comptroller General of the United States; Trustee: Aspen Institute, Alexander S Onassis Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation; a Director, the American Ditchley Foundation
Professor Ashton B Carter
Professor of Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, and Associate Director, Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard University; Member: Council on Foreign Relations, American Physical Society, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Advisory Council, Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government
Dr Sidney D Drell
Professor and Deputy Director, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford University and Co-Director, Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control
Dr Burton I Edelson
Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
Dr William T Golden
President, New York Academy of Sciences; Treasurer, American Association for the Advance­ment of Science; Secretary, the Carnegie Institution; Co-Chairman, Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government; Chairman, American Museum of Natural History; Vice Chairman, Mount Sinai Medical School and Hospital; Member, American Philosophical Society
Dr Joshua Lederberg
President, The Rockefeller University, New York; Co-Chairman, Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government; Director, Institute of Science Information Inc, Philadelphia; Trustee, Conservation Foundation, Washington; Member, Board of Directors, Bull. Atomic Scientists
Professor Joseph S Nye Jr
Director, Center for Science and International Affairs, John F Kennedy School of Government and Ford Foundation Professor of International Security, Harvard University; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Senior Fellow, Aspen Institute, and Director of the Aspen Strategy Group; Member, Trilateral Commission, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Council on Foreign Relations
Dr David Z Robinson Executive Director, Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government
Dr Robert M Rozenzweig
President, Association of American Universities (1983-); Member, Board of Directors, City University of New York Research Foundation; Trustee, Institute for American Universities: Member, Editorial Advisory Board, National Council of University Research Administrators, “Research Management Review”
Mr Leonard D Schaeffer
President and Chief Executive Officer, Blue Cross of California