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Science and society

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A RECENT government consultation document presenting ‘a vision for science and society’ highlights the benefits of science and points out that it ‘will help us to address the main challenges we face as a nation and as a planet’. It lists these challenges as: tackling and adapting to climate change; global security and international terrorism; rising populations and the consequent pressure on food, water and other natural resources; and the impact of human diseases such as pandemic influenza and animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue.

Of the challenges listed, veterinary activity has long been recognised as contributing in the areas of food production and disease prevention and, as will be discussed at the bva Congress next month, has the potential to help tackle some of the challenges presented by climate change. In the usa, if not perhaps to the same extent in the uk, it is also seen as making an important contribution to national security and combating the threat of bioterrorism. This serves to illustrate both the relevance of veterinary science to society, and the relevance of the Government's consultation to the veterinary profession.

The consultation is being undertaken by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (dius), which was formed last year out of elements of the old Department of Education and Skills and the old Department of Trade and Industry. The dius is trying to create a situation where the British public is ‘truly engaged with science in the modern world’ and, building on some of the ideas set out by the Secretary of State, Mr John Denham, in a speech at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (rsa) in London earlier this year (see VR, February 2, 2008, vol 162, p 133), its consultation document seeks views on how best to do this. Like many government documents these days it is written in a somewhat gushing style and makes rather more reference to the Government's achievements than might be considered necessary. Nevertheless, much of what it says makes good sense, and it is worth considering how the veterinary profession can contribute.

Key aims of the consultation, to which those wishing to participate can contribute in writing or online,* are to ‘promote public engagement on increasingly complex science issues’ and ‘encourage more people to choose science as a career’. Comments are sought in three main areas, namely: how to improve communication, generate interest, increase participation and convey the relevance of science; how to build trust and confidence in scientific research in the public and private sectors; and how to inspire young people from diverse backgrounds to become tomorrow's skilled scientists.

Speaking at the launch last month, Mr Ian Pearson, the Minister for Science and Innovation in the dius, said: ‘Science improves the quality of our daily life, underpins the uk's prosperity and will play a key role in meeting the challenges facing the world in the 21st century. The aim of this consultation is to ensure the public are engaged on scientific issues to enable them to make informed choices in this age of information overload. A society that understands double-blind testing, the process of peer-review and the evaluation of risk. A society that can be awestruck by science, but never dumbstruck.

‘There is a need for businesses to engage with society on science. The private sector has a responsibility to improve public trust in the science it uses and funds. One of the key questions of the consultation will be to ask what more can be done to foster public confidence in science and industry.

‘Engaging young people is also an important step on the road to ensuring the uk has a skilled scientific workforce. The consultation will explore how both the Government and business can best inspire young people and support them in a scientific career.’

It is not difficult to think of examples of how a better appreciation of the nature and relevance of science might assist in discussion of issues impinging on the veterinary field. Experience of bse provided one example; issues surrounding new breeding technologies provide another. Nor is it difficult to think of ways in which veterinary surgeons can help in communicating science to their clients — it is, after all, something that most vets do every day in the surgery or on the farm. At the same time, it is important that the veterinary profession itself remains fully engaged with science, whether by participating in research or helping to ensure that the results are appropriately applied. In recent years, various steps have been taken to encourage more veterinarians to embark on research careers, but any further initiatives aimed at ‘inspiring young people and supporting them in scientific careers’ would be welcome. In the meantime, although not specifically concerned with veterinary research, the Government's consultation document has highlighted the relevance of veterinary research in helping to meet future challenges. Such research is in the public interest and it is important that it is supported accordingly.

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