Science - February 4, 2012

Giving scientific advice is balancing act

Scientists and their advice have come under fire increasingly. How can they retain the trust of the vocal public?

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This was the central question during the mini symposium held in the Aula on Thursday. The meeting was part of the farewell gathering for Professor Evert Schouten of Nutrition & Prevention and director of risk assessment at the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority. He too declared that scientific advisors have to be careful in finding a balance between autonomy and relevancy. The speakers provided enough cases to illustrate the declining confidence in the scientific community. Among the controversies mentioned are those involving seasonal flu jabs and vaccines for cervix cancer and the Mexican flu. According to the speakers, independent scientific advice is more important than ever before, but so too is better communication with the public.
Gifts
Martijn Katan, emeritus professor at VU Amsterdam, began by listing a column of threats to independent research. What he fears most is the influence of fund providers. These can affect the direction of the research subtly by using their ties with the researcher. He gave an example showing the power of small and big gifts. Scientists have to resist the pressures from fund providers, said Katan. Moreover, they need to be open about their contacts and financers. For the government to have better scientific advice, Katan sees a point in consulting only completely independent scientists.
Guarantee
Louise Gunning-Schepers, chair of the Health Council of the Netherlands, put forward her proposals more subtly. Her view is that all advice given to the government must be based on sufficient and good research. In addition, researchers who are consulted should be independent. She feels that industrial sector funding does not necessarily pose a problem, provided that there is openness. Above all, research contracts should guarantee autonomy, such as the right to publish negative findings.
Tupperware party
The symposium did not arrive at any ready ideas for better communication with the public. Someone from the audience suggested doing more with Twitter. Gunning-Schepers said that it is important to listen to interest groups. The most creative solution came from Katan: something resembling aTupperware party for health advice where people get to hear about new policies from someone reliable. If each person brings along ten new 'salespersons', he suggested optimistically, 'we would have reached fourteen million people after fifteen sessions.'

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