Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2001 and President of the Royal Society, attended the joint meeting of the IAP and IAMP executive committees and the IAC board on 16 May. During the meeting he gave an invited lecture on ‘Advising Society on Science’ – a topic that many academies deal with as they reach out to their national governments and the public.
Nurse noted that high quality science advice requires a basis on high quality science. Science, he said, is a reliable and reproducible way of generating knowledge, even if that knowledge is sometimes tentative and would require more testing and more data to confirm one way or the other.
“Any advice should be based on our full understanding of the issue in question,” added Nurse. “Uncertainties need to be reflected – and then the advice should be peer reviewed again.” He also warned that data should not be cherry-picked, which is what often happens when advice is linked to political or ideological concerns.
“Those who are not experts and cannot assess evidence are not appropriate providers of advice,” he confirmed.
Sir Paul then went on to explain that scientists should seek advice from the public before addressing any particular issue. This was a lesson learned, in particular, from the debate on genetically modified crops in Europe, when scientists often responded to questions that the public was less concerned with, but did not address issues they were worried about.
“The result has been, among other things, that beneficial products such as Golden Rice are still yet to be properly tested nearly 20 years after they were first discussed and developed,” he added. “But the public want to be engaged. They want to discuss the social and ethical implications of research.”
Good academies typically follow these guidelines when providing science advice to governments or the public, confirmed Nurse, who also foresees this role increasing in the future.
“The inter-academy organizations are particularly important,” he concluded, “as advice from them should be listened to by all countries around the world. Their combined reputations give them a unique authoritative voice.”
Following the presentation, the discussion focused on the value of a consensus view in science – with participants asking whether the ‘deniers’ or the ‘catastrophists’ in the climate change debate might actually be proved correct.
Sir Paul responded saying that he had faith in the scientific consensus. “Initially Galileo was on his own,” he said, “but the natural philosophers of the time soon came around to his views. Likewise, there has been a consensus on climate science now for some 10 to 20 years, but neither the deniers nor the catastrophists have come up with sufficient evidence to challenge this.”
Download the full text of Sir Paul Nurse’s presentation.
Link to IAP Membership Directory for more information on the Royal Society.