Society must make wiser choices about how to harness scientific developments or face dire consequences.
It is an uncompromising message from Kathy Sykes, professor of science engagement and communication at Bristol University.
Farmers, the public and the environment could pay a heavy price by 2020 if the quality of the decision-making does not improve, she warns.
“It is crucial for the survival of human beings and this planet that we learn how to make more informed decisions.
That means scientists, policy-makers and the public, including farmers, listening more and scientists giving greater consideration to the ethics of what they do.”
For too many, science is a scary word, says Prof Sykes.
“Some fear science is a kind of evil: It’s deeply frustrating to hear people say that it gave rise to foot-and-mouth, BSE and global warming.
Science and technology are fantastically useful approaches to solve problems; it’s the way humans harness them that is good or bad.”
The GM controversy contains powerful lessons for the future, she says.
“From a communication point of view, GM turned out a fiasco.
It taught us that the public has valuable things to say about science and that they care about the environment.
They will go to great lengths to stop science they don’t agree with.”
So it is important to win public opinion not just press ahead regardless.
Commercial considerations regarding the application of science and technology should be kept in perspective, argues Prof Sykes.
“Biotechnology is an incredibly powerful technology that we ought to be harnessing.
But if we want to use it to help feed the world it is important that it is not taken over by commercial interests.”
For Prof Sykes, the keys to making wiser decisions about science lie in encouraging scientists to engage with society, conducting a more wide-ranging debate and helping the younger generation to take an interest in science and technology.
“Scientists need humanising: It is almost as though scientists are like aliens, beyond most people’s values, but whose decisions affect every single person.”
Although Prof Sykes detects recent improvements, she still believes many scientists don’t listen to the public as effectively as they should.
A wider-ranging debate about science and technology would help society to better judge the risks of introducing innovation.
“No one should be afraid to ask questions.
We can’t afford not to involve the public, people with ordinary wisdom, together with scientists and policy-makers.”
Involving the public would also help society to assess risk more effectively.
“Risks get scarier and harder to evaluate when they are imposed on you.
That is what frightened people about the GM debate.”
Encouraging the next generation to feel more comfortable with science will help us make wiser choices about what should be developed and how.
“It’s crucial to reach out to the next generation.
That is not just about teaching in schools – we have to look further – people learn from their parents.”
Trust is vital, she says.
“If scientists don’t engage in the debate, it makes them seem beyond values and it jeopardises the public’s trust.
“If we continue not to get it right, we will continue to make lousy decisions around GM, energy and any of the things that affect our society profoundly.”
And it would block the health and environmental benefits science could bring, she adds.
A self-declared incurable optimist, Prof Sykes has a vision of a scientific community in 2020 comprised of skilled communicators who accept full ethical responsibility for the application of their science.
“To capitalise on scientific advances, we need scientists and policy makers who are good listeners and think not just about the commercial benefits, but how to use science and technologies to help people and the planet.”