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Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture 2001

Students near clock tower

"Science in the Public Interest"

by Kevin Keough
March 27, 2001

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I thank Dr. Kealey, the School of Graduate Studies, and the Graduate Student's Union for the invitation to speak to you this evening. It is a pleasure and an honour to be here. Fred Aldrich was one of the most memorable individuals whom I have ever met. He was an imposing figure, physically and intellectually. Fred had a manor which was testy at times, but he was an energetic and endearing character. He was a garrulous gossip, especially about his academic colleagues. It was great fun for junior colleagues to be regaled by some story of Fred's about the more senior members of the institution. As I became more senior I did worry more though. Fred had a profound dedication to the School of Graduate Studies. The high standards that he set for his beloved graduate school have served the University and its graduate students well. Despite his high demands on both students and supervisors, he was, above all, the friend, and even the protector, of "his" graduate students. He took a personal interest in students' progress. Woe betide the supervisor, head or dean whom Fred suspected of not treating a student properly. Although Fred was an invertebrate biologist, best known for his work on giant squid, his eclectic interests ranged through many fields of science and beyond. The Aldrich Interdisciplinary lecture was well named.

I thank John Scott for his very kind introduction. John and I have known one another for a very long time, so long that the earliest days are recalled only through faint photos in my mother's family collection. But my actual memories go back almost as far as those early photographs, and all of them are positive. Having John introduce me tonight adds to my sense of joy on this occasion. There is risk, of course, when the introducer knows too much about you, and I did have occasional flashes of disquiet when I thought about what he might say. John, thank you for what you said, and thank you immensely for what you did not say.

I want to acknowledge the presence of some of my family, especially my wife, Joanie, and my mother, Gertrude. I am deeply grateful for my family's continual support. Most particularly I want to thank Joanie who has given so much of herself to our family and friends. With patience and generosity, she has supported a husband who has been, too often, "missing in action", both figuratively and literally.

This lecture is usually given at the conclusion of a day in which our graduate students whose studies encompass a broad range of disciplines have presented their work. I thank the students for including me as part of their special day. This year the vagaries of our winter weather prevented me from returning from a trip to give the lecture at the original time. I thank the audience, especially the graduate students, who have come tonight. The expansion of knowledge and understanding is central to defining our society. It underpins every aspect of our society - culture, economy, health, safety, environment. Graduate students are the key to our future exploration of the frontiers of human interests. They are investing their curiosity, time and effort for our ultimate benefit. I commend them for their interest and urge them to continue with their quests. The road can be rough but the rewards along the way are high.

Dr. Kealey suggested that I might speak on a topic that was related to my upcoming appointment. Hence, after some consideration, I selected the title for this talk. That turned out to be the easy part, of course.

What are the characteristics of science that is in the public interest? Can we define science that fits neatly into such a category? Is it science that is done for and by public bodies? Does it fit within a more narrowly defined framework such as science done by and for government, or by and for bodies that declare themselves to act in the public interest? The answer to each of these questions is best given in terms of the phrase from the Hertz commercial - "not exactly".

You might rightly ask me to define what I mean by the public interest. I find that it is not easy to do. I might suggest perhaps that it is a set of standards, expectations, ethical and cultural values, and laws that we hold ourselves responsible for in our society. It is a bit elusive, but I think we know it when we see it. Perhaps in my talk the way I address some issues will give you an idea of what I expect to see.

I know of few researchers, now or in the past, who are not motivated by a desire to serve the public interest. For many this desire is fulfilled by adding to the body of scientific knowledge. But most want to go beyond that to interpret their knowledge to improve the human condition or our interactions with our natural surroundings. These objectives have been characteristic of scientists, and their predecessors, from the earliest of time.

Aristotle and Ptolomy, great discoverers of ancient times, certainly wanted to better understand our world. But they also wanted to impart that understanding to others. Galen, the great Greek wise man of the second century certainly applied his knowledge in the practice of medicine. Those ancient sages taught that we should learn from the accumulated works of others and from our own observation and observation. Was their work motivated by and done in the public interest? I would say certainly so.

Were all of the consequences of their work and their teachings in the public interest - certainly not. Their views were dominant for nearly 1500 years. It is remarkable that Galen's views, which were often incorrect because they were based upon incomplete information about things such as human anatomy, were still strongly influencing the practice of medicine nearly fifteen centuries later. There was, during that prolonged dark period, certainly a reluctance to challenge concepts propounded by accepted learned scholars. And the wrong-thinking was exacerbated by a lack of empirical science. If their views had been challenged much earlier, would the human condition have been improved much earlier? I realize this is unanswerable, but it is worth pondering in the context of how science progresses.

Scientists cannot control how their findings will be used once they are public. They do have the right, and perhaps even the responsibility, to speak out on issues concerning their work, and many have done so. Subsequent use of science by others that leads to activity that detracts from the public good should not lead to the devaluation of the original work or its motivation. In fairness, most scientific discoveries are not used in malignant ways, certainly not deliberately.

Certainly the public's interest changes over time. Few would have argued that the atomic scientists who worked on nuclear fission in the nineteen forties, and those who developed the atomic bomb, were not acting in the public interest in the context of the times. Today we would not consider that public interest is well served by the availability of atomic weapons, especially to "rogue states" and terrorist groups.

There need be no divide between personal reward from science and attaining a public good. Was James Watt acting in the public interest when he invented the steam engine? Yes -certainly so. Were subsequent uses of his invention always in the public public interest? Certainly not. But the original science remains of high public value.

At times people see research as only a cost and not an investment. Some wonder if continued research to refine treatment of diseases is too expensive for society to uphold. In other words, once there is an acceptable treatment which improves a condition, further incremental gains are too expensive especially in a society where the public purse assumes the lion's share of treatment costs. To me that view is unacceptable. Through research we can improve an individual's quality of life. Compare, for example, the use of iron lungs versus polio vaccines, or the potential for cancer immunotherapy in contrast with radical surgery. Society as well as individuals can benefit when new procedures or drugs reduce what would be otherwise high costs to governments required by existing means of treatment. We must continue to look for more effective ways to deal with challenges in human health and in other aspects of society as well. There is a need for both public and private investment in such endeavours.

Societal values and expectations outside the field of science often impact largely on the performance of science and acceptance of its findings. Modern developed society has established a way of life that is expensive in its impact on the world around us. It is unlikely that developed societies will willingly reduce their demands on the environment. It is even less likely that underdeveloped societies will not aspire to a real or perceived higher standard of living, and that will increase such stresses. It is in the public interest to understand change; to find ways to modify processes so that high expectations can be compatible with the desire to maintain environmental integrity. We have the capacity to find the balance. But the cost may be high. Or we may need to reduce our expectations. Science can suggest answers, but the public us not always willing to accept their consequences. Science might suggest actions that might be taken to reduce global warming. Society may find it difficult to accept these actions, especially if the uncertainty in the science is high.

The way in which science proceeds is often dictated by a philosophy or world-view held initially by a only a few or even a single individual. People with highly persuasive views can influence the progress of scientific discovery and applications. Think, for example, of John Maynard Keynes who, with a few key disciples, spearheaded the development of an economic system based on employment as opposed to one based on wealth creation as its fundamental philosophy. Both views are legitimate as means to study and manage economic systems. The choice of which underlining perspective is utilized is influenced by societal, ethical and political views, and has shifted over time.

Diversity of perspectives enriches science and strengthens the outcomes of the scientific process. Society is the principal beneficiary of scientific diversity. Science and society lose when there is a narrow range of perspective, or when scientists or interpreters of science are driven by bias or conflict of interest. Unfortunately science is not free from these importunate influences, and as scientists we must be alert for them not only in others, but in ourselves. Regardless of the integrity of the process, scientists must recognize that their view is not the only one, and may not carry the day.

Knowledge exchange between scientists and society is essential to the scientific enterprise in the public interest. There is a need for openness and informed public debate catalyzed by an increasingly conversant press working with an increasingly engaged scholarly community. The public interest demands openness and clarity even in the face of uncertainty in dealing with issues such as the use of genetically modified organisms.

Effective communications are pivotal to constructive public debate. Scientific results must be communicated to scientists and to the public in a way that is understandable to those receiving the information. Failure to communicate impedes progress. For example, the world was deprived for a long period of the insight and observations of one of the creative geniuses of the Renaissance, Leonardo de Vinci. He had a propensity for procrastination in making his findings known, and perhaps an outright compulsion to disguise his findings. One can only imagine how some science might have progressed if his creative insight had been better known at his time. While very few of us would have the audacity to place ourselves in a category with de Vinci, it is incumbent on all to disseminate findings and interpretations in a timely fashion. Delay in publication does not serve the public interest. In some cases it might even be considered a breach of trust with the supporters of the science - usually the general public through their public funding agencies.

It is the recognition that the public interest is best served by the publication of the findings of science that has led to our system of copyrights and patents. We recognize the right of an individual to profit from his or her intellectual endeavours. The copyright and patent systems serve the public interest by encouraging publication of the results of intellectual endeavours while allowing personal benefit from them. In the absence of such protection for intellectual property, we would face retention of discoveries as secrets. This is obviously not in the public interest.

While a scientist may see her or his work as being in the public interest, the broader society may decide that it is not. In such cases the science should not proceed. In some cases society itself is divided on the appropriateness of certain science. Science cannot stand remote from ethical, religious or other tenets of society. Open debate on these issues is essential for science and for society. But it is often difficult to fully inform the discourse, especially since such controversial science is often at a frontier. When science is at a frontier, uncertainty is usually high. In the face of high scientific uncertainty, extreme positions are sometimes taken, and these are unhelpful in informing public debate. But society does have a right and a collective duty to decide upon the performance of science where that science tests the core values of the society.

Science must meet personal and societal ethical standards. It is a given that science which is unethical is not in the public interest. But ethical activities are not defined by a simple set of rules, but by a personal and collective interpretation of core human values. At times, frontier science challenges societal values. Take the situation of the cloning of pleuripotential human stem cells after nuclear transplantion. Such a modified cell could form a group of cells or a tissue that can be transplanted into a brain to possibly prevent or cure a debilitating condition like Parkinson's disease - but should we do it? Current technology presents an even more dramatic ethical challenge: that modified cell could be placed in a host's womb and allowed to develop as a clone of the individual whose DNA was transferred into it. Can we do it? Yes. Will it work all the time? No. Should we do it? There is urgent need for informed debate on these issues. There needs to be a process to enable better understanding of public values and to ensure that they are reflected in how science proceeds. We need to consider the implications of the science in light of those values.

Public investment in science demands scrutiny in advance to ensure that the investment is not wasted on frivolous or flawed procedures. Peer review is central to such scrutiny. It is essential that those with expert knowledge be involved in evaluation of quality, but expert review has an innate risk of its own. There exists in science a relative conservatism, founded in experience that tells us that unconventional perspectives and routes only infrequently lead to real progress. But if that conservatism leads to bias or lack of openness to new ideas, the core value of innovation that drives the progress of science can be lost. Not wasting scarce public resources is important, but overly conservative evaluation can mean the death knell for scientific innovation. At times, evaluation by informed non-peers is highly valuable. But as with peer reviewers, these evaluators need to be appropriately knowledgeable, and act without bias or conflict of interest.

Innovation is the touchstone of progress in science. This means that science must be tolerant of quirkiness. But sparingly so. Progress is made when we find new knowledge, or new ideas about old knowledge. Tolerating unconventional ideas is important. We need to balance openness to new ideas with the knowledge that many quacks are just that, quacks, and they are not visionaries. We must acknowledge that dissenting perspective may be correct. But I would contend that as long as the more widely held view can explain the observations in the field, then the conventional view should prevail.

Nevertheless, there is an important function for dissent. In the performance and evaluation of science, processes have to be in place to allow for its expression. Dissent should be well informed, open to all viewpoints and ensure that all available evidence is considered. It, like the original views, must be free of conflict of interest. When interest groups raise dissenting views they enrich public debate. When they do so without full consideration of all evidence, they may not fully inform the discourse. But dissent that is not tainted by conflict of interest or by "quackery" is integral to the progress of science.

The process of science is one in which the conventional view continues to be challenged. We constantly attempt to prove the conventional view to be wrong. An unexpected answer can lead to a truly new understanding. In the face of reliable observations that do not fit the current conventional theory, the theory must change. Such findings are the source of excitement and innovation in science. That being said, we must acknowledge that changing theory for the sake of the exercise can be costly, disruptive and often counter-productive. At times we need to accept that more than one set of explanations may account for observed phenomena. In which case, one should be free to take whichever view one sees fit until observation helps to select one perspective over another.

Science cannot provide certainty. Nor can it produce unequivocal guidance on the "right" way forward. What scientists can do is provide the best interpretation or recommendation that is consistent with scientific evidence and theory at a certain time. This means that subsequent advice may be different in the face of new evidence, or new analytical tools, or theory. There is an unfortunate tendency for us to want to ascribe "blame" when advice, and actions taken based on it, turn out to be wrong in hindsight. If such actions arose through negligence, then that might be a proper reaction. All too often, however, that is not the case, and the prospect of subsequent second guessing inhibits the production of "best available" advice. Hence the importance of communicating what science can and cannot tell us about issues.

How do these characteristics effect science done in and for government? The public interest is the raison d'etre of government science. Are there special characteristics that apply to the conduct of science in government? Science in government is subject to the same principles and constraints as science in other jurisdictions. But in government there is a duty of performing science which is relevant to the mandate of the unit in which the science is performed.

Rulers and governments have employed the equivalent of science advisors for millennia. While some advisors have been little more than shamans and soothsayers, there has been a long history of builders (engineers) and finance ministers (economists) who established a history of carrying out high quality science and of providing sound advice in the public interest. Later, governments appointed people like the Astronomer Royal who both carried out science and provided advice. Even later came those who advised on science in the realm of policy and process such as chief scientists. The Royal Society was set up in Britain at least in part to provide advice to government, as was the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. These bodies now provide assessment of science to support decision-making by individuals, business, and government.

Questions that arise in government science often require multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to their resolution. Take, for example, the question of whether one should promote vaccination against influenza for the whole population. To examine this issue will require input from many disciplines from immunology to population health. As the questions become more complex, government will need to rely on external experts as much as internal ones. Maintaining the integrity of the system to ensure that advice serves the government mandate will be a clear challenge.

Decisions in the areas of policy and regulation must often be taken without complete scientific information. Actions are often needed rapidly, sometimes even in emergencies where science is, at best, incomplete. Nevertheless, science needs to be employed to its fullest even with the incumbent uncertainty. In such circumstances it is important for scientists to be in a position to give the best advice at the time but to be free from retrospective criticism in light of future science findings.

There is public expectation that the government will ensure facets of our lives such as health, safety, environmental integrity. Scientists in government often do research that informs public policy or regulation in these areas. It is in the public interest to ensure that there is clear and open consideration of the relevant science when formulating policy, but it cannot be the only factor which determines a decision. The estimation of risk is one of the most challenging factors in weighing scientific input to decisions on policy. But decisions must be made and science is seldom fully certain. Obviously no conclusion in science or in the social milieu is immune to error, but one cannot continually debate an issue based on the same information. Continual questioning of decisions in the absence of new information can lead to chaotic and unacceptable governance. In a recent report to government the Council of Science and Technology Advisers wrote of the concept of placing a "best before" date on science advice which would be estimated based upon the uncertainly in the science at the time, and the expected development of the field. As new information becomes available, or new means of interpretation become acceptable, obviously it is in the public interest to reopen debate on key regulations and policies.

As I noted, the public interest is the reason for science done in government, but, more universally, science has generally been performed in the public interest. It is a framework in which scientists would proudly place themselves. The public interest is best served when the scientific process is open and rigorous. The public interest is also best served when the scientist possesses combinations of qualities to which we might all aspire, those of diligence, openness, wisdom, courage and humility.

I have had, and continue to have, a rewarding life in science. I am thankful for having had the opportunity to be a research scientist. I am deeply grateful to Memorial University, a number of research funding agencies, many colleagues and students who have enormously enriched my life. I can assure the students that it has been challenging, exciting and fulfilling. Whether you are in Science or Arts or the Professional Schools, I urge you to prepare well. Show mutual respect for varieties in method and evidence. Share a respect for truth and its consequences. And pursue your research careers with energy and enthusiasm. You will not be disappointed.