AGENDA: Teaching of Ethics Is Critical as Science Advances at Pace; Public Engagement with Science Is Vital but Its Possible Misuse Means Society Must Stay in Control, Argues Prof Lord Robert Winston, Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, London, Who Spoke at a Leading Health Care Conference at the Hyatt Hotel in Birmingham
Byline: Prof Lord Robert Winston
How can we be sure science is being used in the right way? Science is about uncertainty.
Without knowing where research may take us, how do we make informed decisions about it? It's been said science is exceeding the pace with which humans can deal. In healthcare the perception is it is, though the reality is undoubtedly different.
IVF and sex selection have been on the agenda for much longer than most people imagine. It was first investigated in 1760.
We change our views on ethics based on what we discover.
That's why I believe it's essential our universities teach ethics, as well as an understanding of potential conflicts of interest, so advances in healthcare technology can be more easily understood and accepted, and we can all benefit.
With any innovation, the ethics debate needs to be had.
From GM crops to stem cell research or MMR vaccines, the public's perception of technology matters. For example, we accept a mother has an ethical duty to her child, not government.
If there's doubt about the MMR vaccine, she feels justified in her decision to protect her child as long as there is 'herd immunity', where everyone else does agree to the vaccine to prevent an outbreak.
With the voice highlighting the risks outweighing the voices of the scientists and the Government saying it was safe, there was a clear failure of dialogue, which I predict will have implications in years to come.
It was good fortune, not good planning, that in my opinion prevented a measles epidemic in recent years.
In this mathematically illiterate society, the concept of risk remains an issue. The attitude to risk affects the introduction of valuable new technologies, which adds to their cost.
But 'reassuring' pronouncements of scientists often are counterproductive - exaggeration, certainty, arrogance and lack of subjectivity frequently have an adverse affect.
Reporting of stem cell biology is another good example.
Public perception undoubtedly has a negative effect on certain developments, for example the difficulties associated with the science of genetic modification, potentially of huge benefit if used wisely.
There is a need for greater engagement with the public and it is the responsibility of Government, scientists, policy-makers and industry. It must include recognition of the ethical implications of what we do and confiicts of interest from commercial exploitation of intellectual property.
Public trust is a vital ingredient. A recent survey showed doctors, teachers and professors are among the most trusted, while politicians, business leaders and journalists rate poorly. …