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Why science needs to nurse the public

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by Cancer Research UK | News

28 October 2002

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Britain’s leading cancer boss will today warn of the dangers of failing to match progress in research with public understanding and trust.

Sir Paul Nurse believes “muddled” advice on issues like BSE, foot and mouth and the measles vaccine has led to a lack of public confidence in science and scientists.

Speaking at Cancer Research UK’s first annual conference in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, Sir Paul will announce that the charity is to lead the way in Britain by inviting the public to help determine the direction cancer science will take.

Sir Paul will tell conference delegates: “Experts are predicting an explosion of new and better therapies to prevent and treat cancer in the next five years as the mysteries of the human genome unravel.

“Pushing back scientific frontiers will continue to present ethical challenges – as in the examples of GM crops and stem cell cloning. But problems have to be faced head on and discussed honestly and openly. There are no benefits to be gained from keeping the public in the dark.

“Many fear a brave, new world scenario. It is the duty of scientists everywhere to ensure an appropriate flow of information to keep confidence high in the community at large and retain its support”, he advises.

This erosion in public trust is a key reason why Cancer Research UK has decided to become the first medical charity in Britain to consult the public as part of its decision-making process.

Explains Sir Paul: “We rely almost entirely on public support to raise the money which makes our pioneering work possible. It is only right and proper that we engage with them in deciding how we tackle a disease which will affect one in three of us at some time in our lives. Cancer is a scourge within our society. I want to discuss the best ways forward in a range of areas, including prevention, treatment and clinical trials“.

Sir Paul believes in the immediate future the field of genetics will have great impact on cancer research – not just in the UK but across the globe.

“We know that many diseases have a genetic component, and I believe over the next decade researchers will find many human genes involved in disease. But the road from gene identification to treatment is long and complicated.

“It is essential that at Cancer Research UK we take the lead by protecting publicly – funded research for the benefit of the wider community – the haves and the have nots.

“Most of the work surrounding the cloning of the breast cancer susceptibility gene, BRCA1, for example, was funded and carried out by the public sector. A commercial company came in towards the end of that big piece of work to claim the rights. This was completely wrong.

“This is a problem, and ultimately erodes confidence in public research and limits the future collaborations with industry that will be needed. Care and judgement will have to be exercised along the way”, he adds.