Rights: The University of Waikato Published 16 November 2007 Download

Biology address the nature of life and the nature of being human. This means it is important for biologists to discuss issues openly with the general public.

In this video, Sir Paul Nurse explains why he is concerned that biologists are becoming the modern-day equivalent of witch doctors - necessary but feared, important, but isolated from society.


Sir Paul Nurse: The discoveries of biology can be truly revolutionary. They challenge long cherished beliefs, and we see it already with issues like creationism, with issues like stem cells and the like. These are difficult issues. Because biology addresses the nature of being human, you touch upon cherished beliefs and you have to tread with great care.

And I do worry about the fact that scientists, even today, can be separated from the rest of the community … I worry that they become sort of like witch doctors or shamans, you know, deemed to be necessary for society, but feared by society because nobody understands quite was is going on, what they mean, and what is happening. So, crucial to all of this exercise and all of science is to keep a very good dialogue between scientists and the public. That isn’t just public understanding of science that is dialogue - scientists, and science policy makers, listening to the public as well as talking to the public. And we haven’t done enough of that.

In Britain, the GM crop debate, for example, was a complete disaster because nobody listened to the public first. The public - one of the reasons they were so bothered about genetically modified crops was because the [genetically modified] crops had genes in them. Now no scientist would have thought that that was an issue because they all know that crops have genes. But if you are not terribly well versed in science you can understand this mistake occurring. It was only about 18 months into the debate, by which time it was all lost anyway, that anybody went to ask what the problem was, and that was one of the major problems that was given by most people. You have to listen to the public if scientists are going to keep a "license to operate". You have to keep good dialogue. We can’t just rely on the politicians, we have to keep a good dialogue with them [the public] to find out what bothers them so that we can actually get decent science policy.