Monday, 14 October 2013

Professor Averil Macdonald

Safety of Plastics: Let's talk about it
Professor Averil Macdonald
Averil Macdonald is Professor of Science Engagement at the University of Reading with particular emphasis on Impact from Public Engagement and for leading the university’s gender and equality in Science initiatives through the Athena SWAN scheme. Prof MacDonald will be the guest speaker during the Gala dinner on 5 November 2013.

Science, Politics and Industry

1. What should be the role of science in policy making?
Science has to have a central role in policy making. All policy should be evidence driven and not based upon a whim, a superstition or an ideology and certainly not based upon a misunderstanding or ignorance of how the world works. Without science's input into policy making, we risk missing opportunities, wasting resources or perhaps worse.

2. What do you expect from policy makers?
Policy makers need to provide sufficient funding for those engaged in research and development to investigate fully and to do their job properly, and then they should listen to the findings objectively, setting aside any personal preferences or ideologies. Policy makers also need to recognise that scientists are experts and do not have a vested interest in damaging either the environment, public health or the economy – after all scientists have families too.

3. Can you define robust science vs. non-conclusive science?
I think this could be a misleading contrast. Robust science defines the approach; it describes well tested techniques and valid, competent approaches to investigation. The outcome could be conclusive or inconclusive. If inconclusive then the obvious conclusion is that further investigation is required.

Is industry funded research to be trusted?

This question seems to indicate that scientists lack integrity and cannot be trusted. I have never found a case where an industry funded scientist is paid more for obtaining ‘good’ results or for suppressing less ideal results so there would seem to be no incentive for the scientist to falsify results.

Conversely it has been known for pharmaceutical companies, for example, to suppress less ideal results for business reasons – but that’s not the scientist, it’s the managers. The research is fine, it’s the selective publication of the results that may be driven by the profit motive – as indeed may be the selective publication of accounts or the selective announcement of business progress. Industry funded research is as trustworthy as industry accounts or any other information given out by companies.

However it’s worth noting that there have been cases where academic scientists have falsified results in order to publish more papers and obtain more government funding. Interestingly the research shows that this happens much more with male scientists and very rarely, if at all, with female scientists.

5. How to avoid conflicts of interests hampering the credibility of independent agencies?
There is never a conflict of interest if associations are admitted and known. Openness and honesty on all parts reduces any possibility of a conflict of interest.

The divergence approaches to risk regulation between the EU and US

6. Does culture affect how we approach legislation? Can you give examples?

I can’t speak for the US but as far as I can see, in the UK, the role of the lawyer is to find a way to win the case at all costs, regardless of justice. This can include finding a way to get the case dismissed on a technicality or loophole or can use the technique of undermining the character of the opposition.

How to deal with unintended consequences of precautionism?

7. When should the precautionary principle be applied?
I see no problem with the sensible application of the precautionary principle in all cases, if that means that there is continuing research into the possible impacts of materials or processes currently in use. The application of the precautionary principle should seek both to establish the on-going commitment to limiting any negative impacts, and to identify more effective, more efficient, more benign processes or materials. Conversely if the precautionary principle is used to delay or stop innovation or progress then this is not a sensible application.

8. How can the precautionary principle enhance innovation?
The precautionary principle should lead to a commitment to continuous funding for research to ensure progress in our understanding of processes and materials currently in use and their impacts on people and the environment, alongside research into completely innovative processes and materials which are predicted to be the next step. 

Is innovation possible in risk averse society?  

9. Is Europe risk averse?
In my opinion people are risk averse but do not fully understand the magnitude of certain risks. The media play on this and over-emphasise the risks associated with many things, particularly those related to science as these are most likely to be poorly understood by the majority of the population. People then become unduly worried about issues that actually present a tiny risk, for example certain aspects of radioactivity, and yet are quite blasé about things which are very risky, such as smoking or crossing the road. The media should be required to report science and risk more responsibly rather than sensationalising to increase sales.

10. Do we need to take risk to be innovative?
Being innovative is about doing things differently and there is always a risk associated with doing something that hasn’t been done before. We shouldn’t be afraid of calculated risk – it’s the way to the future.

Health and Safety for Competitiveness

11. What would be your message to policy makers when it comes to the precautionary principle?
The message that has to be to understood is that the precautionary principle is about doing more science alongside established and new processes to ensure our understanding increases; it isn’t about doing nothing until things are absolutely certain to be completely safe, as this is an impossible dream.

12. Can innovation (therefore, competitiveness) be possible with the application of the precautionary principle?Yes, if the precautionary principle is about knowing more and researching to explore the unknowns.

13.  In an ideal world, the scientific community, policy makers and industry should work together in order to guarantee the safety and health of all consumers, or should have be a healthy distrust between them to secure the health and safety of consumers?
I’d prefer a healthy collaboration and conversation between them. Why is there always an assumption that people can’t really be trusted? Surely as professionals we should respect each other’s integrity and realise we are all in the business of improving lives – our own, our families’ and the public’s.

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