Lord Sainsbury announces public consultation on biosciences


Over 1,000 people will be asked for their views on a wide range of bioscience subjects in a public consultation, details of which were announced by Science Minister Lord Sainsbury.

The nationwide consultation will help scientists and policy-makers to understand how the public feel - and what they want to know - about developments in this rapidly changing area of science. It will explore the wider implications of scientific progress, including ethical considerations on such subjects as cloning, genetic testing and genetically modified crops.

The consultation will be carried out on behalf of the Office of Science and Technology by MORI, using The People's Panel. It will begin with a series of qualitative focus groups and broaden out to a questionnaire directed at 1,000 members of the public. A report will then go to Ministers in May 1999 for them to consider the results.

The remit of the exercise is to explore the following broad issues:

  • What is the level and nature of people's awareness of technological advances in the biosciences?

  • What issues do people see arising from developments in the biosciences and how important are these compared to other major scientific issues?

  • What is the extent of people's knowledge of the oversight and regulatory process in the United Kingdom and Europe?

  • What issues do people believe should be taken into account in any oversight of developments in the biosciences?

  • What information should be made available to the general public from the regulatory system and about advances in the biosciences?

    The Office of Science and Technology will continue to be assisted in developing the consultation by an independent advisory group who will assist in the project.

    Lord Sainsbury explained: 'The biosciences have an increasing impact on everyday life and it is important that we consult members of the public on how they feel about developments. The consultation sets the challenging task of

    seeking the public's views and promoting informed debate.

    'Our long-term aim is to build public confidence in the Government's use of scientific information and know-how. Understanding what people expect of Government and science is crucial to meeting their needs.

    'The work programme will consist of two stages. The first will use workshops to allow us to explore initial public views and provide information to participants so that we can debate with them in-depth on real-life issues such as health, agriculture and the environment.

    'We will use the insight from these workshops to construct a

    large-scale statistically valid survey with numerical information to reflect the opinions of the nation as a whole.

    'The recently announced Cabinet sub-committee on biotechnology shows the importance that Government attaches to this area of science. I hope that the consultation will help to inform the policy-making process.'


    In November 1997, John Battle, Minister for Science, announced an initiative to hold a public consultation exercise to explore the wider, including ethical, implications of recent developments in the biosciences.

    Following the announcement, subsequent preparation has included a survey of existing initiatives and a major meeting held in March this year. At this meeting Mr Battle met a number of individuals and organisations with interests in the debate to discuss the scope of the consultation.

    The structure of the consultation has been developed by the Office of Science and Technology, with substantial assistance from an independent advisory group appointed by John Battle in June 1998.

    The members of the advisory group are:

    Beryl Allan, Women's Institute

    Alison Austin, Sainsbury's

    Philip Campbell, Nature

    Julie Hill, Green Alliance

    Suzanne King, Wellcome Trust

    Nigel Poole, Zeneca

    Tom Wakeford, University of East London

    Monica Winstanley, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

    The proposed structure of the initiative is to combine qualitative and quantitative research. There will be six workshops involving around 120 members of the public. These will run from December 1998 to February 1999, following which MORI will interview a representative sample from the randomly selected People's Panel. The process will allow Government to both understand the public's views and to explore the reasons behind these perceptions.

    This structure will aim to explore participants' initial levels of knowledge and provide them with information on the current state of the relevant science and associated technologies. The project will then investigate attitudes to the issues arising from recent developments and the associated oversight and regulatory processes. Workshop moderators and interviewers will explore participants'

    responses to these various issues.