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Governments should be more prepared to admit to uncertainties in the scientific aspects of the decisions they face, and should also consult the public widely on such decisions before they are taken, the President of Britain’s Royal Society, Lord May, warned in his annual address on 30 November.

Lord May also highlighted the international implications of such decisions. “Questions about ethics and safety which are posed by advances in science and technology… ultimately do not recognise international borders, and need to be addressed in truly global fora.”

In his address, May said that governments need to deal with science policy in a transparent way — for example, publishing all the advice that they receive — and explained that although policy-makers may find his advice disconcerting, it was the only way to ensure public confidence in decisions on complex scientific issues such as human cloning.

The costs of wide consultation (to include listening to dissenting voices), recognising and acknowledging scientific uncertainties, practising openness and publishing all advice, “are outweighed by their trust-promoting benefits”, he said.

May called on individuals outside the scientific community to take a more active role in deciding how scientific advances will shape the future. “Science has no special voice in such democratic debates”, he said, “but [it] does serve a crucial function in painting the landscape of facts and uncertainties against which such societal debates take place”.

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