Should regulation of research be left to peers?

Mark Henderson in The Times yesterday (25 October 2007, page 36) reported the results of a survey of 204 researchers drawn from all levels in science, from the heads of major institutions to postdoctoral researchers and PhD candidates, concluding that “excessive regulation of science is damaging public confidence in research by creating a misleading impression that most of it is dangerous or ethically dubious.”

According to the Institutue of Ideas survey, scientists feel that strict laws covering experiments on animals, embryos and human tissue have a negative, rather than positive, effect on public perceptions of their work. The study will be discussed on Sunday 28 October as part of the Battle of Ideas festival, sponsored by The Times, at the Royal College of Art, London (tickets available via the link). There is a long list of speakers, from all walks of life including science, the arts, politics and journalism, which can be seen at this page. Other scientific topics to be discussed include climate change, particle physics, and the teaching of evolution.

The Battle of Ideas festival describes itself as “An initiative to bring together different strands of social, political, scientific, academic and cultural discussion into an annual festival.” The survey will be debated in the session “What are the barriers to science in the 21st century?” Tony Gilland, of the Institute of Ideas, who organised the survey, told The Times: “If we really want value for money from publicly funded scientists then we have to be willing to allow them to pursue their curiosity and see what comes of it. A scientist’s peers are best placed to judge whether their work is excellent or mediocre. Today the mark of a ‘good’ scientist seems to be all about whether they are prepared to doff their cap to the externally imposed constraints of ethics committees and regulators or the Government’s demands for short-term economic or social benefits from their work.”


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    Andrew Sun said:

    Finally I heard a different vioce.

    Ethics was once much more ‘foresighted’ than it is today. In the sixteenth century, it strove to prevent the birth of science.

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    Andrew Sun said:

    If the question is only the public misunderstanding, there is no reason to loosen the regulation. Enhancement of the communication between scientists and the public can help eliminate the gap between them.

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    mikem said:

    “A scientist’s peers are best placed to judge whether their work is excellent or mediocre.” That’s certainly true, but that’s also different from evaluating the conduct and consequences of the work from an ethical standpoint. Additionally, while the presence of ethics committees might give the impression that there is ethically dubious work being conducted, the absence of those committees would almost certainly lead to the generation of unethical research. The obvious solution is to increase the amount of ethics training and get more specialized ‘peers’ on the ethics committees.

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