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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Role and accountability of scientists
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image image image Date published: 03/04/2002
  image Role and accountability
of scientists
RTD info Special
  Scientists are men and women whose knowledge brings them power. They are a very special professional group over whose activities - due to their ethical implications - society must exercise strict control. Such are the feelings of a majority of Europeans. But when it comes to determining the share of responsibility researchers must bear for the uses made of their discoveries, they are much more divided in their views.

"Gravity cannot be held responsible for the fact that one falls in love," said Einstein. This could be taken to mean that scientists cannot control and monitor the applications of their research. Seven proposals on this sensitive issue were put to Europeans. The first - "as members of society, scientists share in the responsibility of any use, good or bad, of their discoveries" - was widely subscribed to (69.1%). The second - "scientists are responsible for the misuse of their discoveries by others"- which places a greater burden of responsibility on scientists as possessors of knowledge as distinct from other citizens, elicited a divided response, with two roughly equal blocks 'for' and 'against' but also with cultural and geographical differences. Although 42.3% overall disagree with this idea of 'blanket' responsibility, 60.5% of the most educated reject the notion, as do a majority of people in northern Europe.

Science and ethics

When presented differently, the responsibility of scientists prompts different responses. A large majority of Europeans (84.4%) believe that a discovery in itself is neither good nor bad. Here, as so often is the case, it is the use to which it is put that matters.

When confronted with ethical issues in more concrete terms, namely the example of animal experimentation, differences are along the lines of gender and political convictions: just over half of men (50.6% compared with 40.6% of women) accept experimentation - as do the majority (55.4%) of those who put themselves on the right of the political spectrum.

Control and respect for ethical standards, evoked in the last two proposals, meet with wide support. Social control is seen as a good thing, irrespective of cultural class (85% of respondents with a high level of knowledge are "inclined to agree"). However, 73.5% of Europeans consider that "scientists ought to be free to pursue their research as they wish so long as they observe ethical rules".

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Who to trust?

Who, finally, should we believe? And who can be trusted in the event of a disaster? To find out, Europeans were asked to give their verdict on a dozen professions (see table).

Science and technology have a good image, as the three professions held in the most esteem are those with a scientific and technical dimension: doctors (clear leaders with a 71.1% rating), followed by scientists (44.9%) and engineers (29.8%). The former are the favourites of older people (78% among the over-65s), the French and the British. The two latter categories are favoured by respondents with a high knowledge index. Scientists are particularly appreciated in Sweden, Denmark, Greece, The Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Among the less trusted are journalists and businessmen (and -women), to a more or less equal extent at 13.5% and 13.6% respectively. Finally, there are the politicians, with on average just 6.6% of the confidence vote, but with a somewhat better score in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark.

When Europeans are asked who they would trust most in the event of a disaster in their immediate neighbourhood or district, it is scientists first, followed by doctors. The former receive most support among people who have pursued lengthy studies, as well as in Denmark and Greece (74.7% and 83.4%). The latter are chosen more by elderly people. Environmental protection and consumer associations both inspire a good level of trust, with politicians and journalists some way behind, and businessmen clearly trailing the field.

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Graphic elementWomen and science

Although the questions in the Eurobarometer survey were not specifically designed to highlight gender patterns, some answers do show differences between the opinions of men and women irrespective of national and cultural characteristics.

As a general rule, women are less interested in science and technology (39.6% say they are interested, compared with 51.5% of men). They are, however, interested in certain fields, such as medicine and the environment (68.4%). They are also more clearly hostile to certain aspects of science than their male counterparts. This is true of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and - even among the youngest (68.1% of 15- to 24-year-olds compared with 60.7% among boys of the same age) - animal experimentation.

As regards the scientific "vocation", and the need to encourage more women to study and teach these subjects, A noteworthy 70.8% of interviewees say they are favourable to this. Strangely though, younger women are the least convinced (66.8% of women students).

Lastly, of all Europeans it is the Italians who seem to be least enthusiastic about the idea of seeing their women opt for sciences (59.4% compared with 70.8%, on average, of all the respondents).


BSE: Who's to blame?

What better illustration of accountability than the BSE or mad cow crisis? Who was responsible? Four possibilities were presented: the agri-food industry, politicians, farmers and scientists.

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When asked to consider what share of responsibility these actors bore, respondents pointed the finger first at industry (74.3%), closely followed by politicians (68.6%). Farmers (59.1%) and scientists (50.6%) were deemed to be much less responsible. Many Europeans (44.6%) nevertheless felt they did not have enough information to apportion blame.

This BSE question is highly indicative of the way researchers are viewed and revealed significantly different views depending on level of knowledge (see graph). The higher the knowledge level, the more industry, politicians and farmers are seen as culprits and the least blame is attached to researchers. Logically enough, it is among the most educated that there are least complaints of not having enough information on the subject.

To complete the analysis, four possible solutions to problems of this kind were put to respondents. A very large majority of them subscribed to the view that:

  • Scientists ought to keep us better informed about the possible hazards of certain scientific or technological advances (89%);

  • Scientists ought to better communicate their scientific knowledge (85.9%);

  • Industry ought to be better regulated (82.4%);

  • Politicians ought to rely more on the opinion of scientists (72%).

Although it would appear difficult to disagree with these proposals, it is interesting to note how widely held the view is that scientists should warn the public. Differences of opinion are evident in the proposition concerning the agri-food industry: senior executives are more likely to reject this notion that it should be better regulated (13% compared with 7.7% average) as are the citizens of certain countries, usually the Nordic countries, and especially Sweden (30.4% contest it).

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The idea of constraint is found everywhere, even where the most confidence in scientists could have been expected, for example among those with a high level of knowledge.




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