Bridging the gap between scientific and value judgements

Speech by Sir Mark Walport to the Foundation for Science and Technology on distinguishing between scientific and value judgements.

Professor Sir Mark Walport

The management of risk pervades the work of government. Major issues of health, wellbeing, resilience and security depend to a greater or lesser degree on natural and man-made infrastructure.

The government has a National Risk Register which is used to reduce or eliminate risk in the first place, then to mitigate those that remain, handle them effectively and finally clear up afterwards.

The assessment of risk is at the centre of the work of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser whose task is to provide advice on all aspects of science, engineering, technology and social science relevant to policy.


Innovation is vital to the economy and to solving some of the future challenges society faces. However, innovation also inherently poses new risks.

The fact that the global population has reached more than 7 billion is essentially because of our ability to innovate. In the UK, innovations such as widespread electrification, improvements in healthcare, the ability to manufacture on a very large scale, and the capability to transport people and goods easily have made modern life possible.

Of course, the current global population level also creates its own challenges such as climate change and resource security. Innovation will be needed to meet these challenges and safeguard our futures.

It is clear that innovation is sometimes held back by poorly framed discussions about risk. In order to have a sensible debate, it is necessary first to be precise about the terminology we use. It is also important that all discussion participants are clear on the meaning and the types of arguments they are making.


Hazard is all-too-often confused (and treated as synonymous) with risk.

Distinguishing between ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’ is extremely important. The world is full of hazards. The kitchen is full of them: bleach is not good to drink and so it is not sensible to store it in lemonade bottles. Electric toasters can burn.

Yet exposure can be reduced if knives are kept in drawers and the different vulnerabilities of family members are addressed by making sure that children, for example, are protected from plugging their fingers into toasters. Worthwhile conversations about risk cannot take place if different concepts are not carefully distinguished.

Threat is another common element of any such assessment but is usually applied to actions that humans do to one another.


Different forms of innovation provoke different sorts of discussion about values.

High acceptance but who pays?

In one group are innovations where there is a high degree of public acceptance of the benefits. The pharmaceutical industries, producing drugs and vaccines, is a good example. Most people (but not all) accept that these are valuable because of their role in treating disease. Questions of values about innovation in this sector concern fairness and the matter of who pays. Take Ebola. It might have been possible to make vaccines more quickly, but there was a debate about who would pay for them. Discussions about values do concern innovation but they lie in the realm of fairness, equity and how they should be paid for.

Science meets values

In other areas of innovation, there is a straightforward confrontation between science and people’s values. Modern maize bears little resemblance to its ancestor, the Central American teosinte plant. The change has occurred through uncontrolled breeding aimed at improving its use as a food stuff. There have been literally millions of genetic changes. Yet, people do not consider maize to be ‘genetically modified food’. Change a single gene using a single nucleotide in a single position, though, then the plant acquires a new and mystical status as a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Here, on the one hand, science – the genetic relationship between teosinte and maize – is well understood. On the other is the question of values: some people simply do not like the idea of human beings fiddling with nature. This is a value judgement. Members of society have values, often different values. Values differ between countries as well.

Unfortunately, discussions about science and values sometimes get confused and people who dislike GMOs on the basis of values may believe there is something intrinsically wrong with the science. I believe it is very important that we distinguish between a scientific argument and a values discussion. It is my thesis that, in democratic societies, the politicians we elect must reconcile scientific and values issues.

My risk, your benefit

A third form of debate could be characterised as ‘my risk, your benefit’. It can apply to innovation but equally to very large infrastructure projects. For example, a railway may thunder past someone’s property at high speed, but the nearest station may be 50 miles away. Risk and benefit are not located in the same place. Similar arguments are involved with regard to geological disposal of nuclear waste, although here another form of values discussion intrudes as well – not only ‘I have the facility in my vicinity, you get the benefit somewhere else’, but also views about nuclear energy in general. Here there are also clear examples of how such values vary across Europe: France has a high degree of nuclear acceptance while Germany has decided to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy.

Unintended consequences

In some areas of innovation, science and values can become entangled as the full impact of an innovation is realised. Many people enthusiastically adopted mobile GPS devices: small, pocket-sized computers which can be used to make phone calls. Yet now there are all sorts of questions about the consequences of social networking, questions about privacy, about cyber security, issues about individual autonomy. The values discussions have arisen long after the technology itself had been widely adopted.

New challenges

In a few instances, it is possible to recognise – and reflect upon – the challenges in advance. So, drones bring potential opportunities as well as potential harm.

Another mistake that is often made is to frame questions about a technology in generic terms of being ‘a good or a bad thing’. This is a ridiculous question. Going back to genetically modified organisms, the question should be in every case: ‘What gene? What organism? For what purpose?’

To give a personal anecdote: soya beans are rather poor in sulphur-containing amino acids and so, some years ago, someone thought to make soya beans more nutritious by introducing a protein rich in these constituents. They found a methionine-rich protein in the Brazil nut that could be genetically engineered into soya beans. However, the result was to engineer the major Brazil nut allergen into the beans. Now, I have an anaphylactic reaction to Brazil nuts, so this innovation would have made soya beans potentially lethal.

This is an example where a GMO can be a very dangerous product for a small number of people. In fact, this development was stopped.

The point here is that discussions about innovation need to be very specific in such cases if sensible decisions are to be made.


There are also several types of regulatory challenge. The first is to ensure that systems are not too narrow in scope. Economic regulation is necessary where there is a monopoly provider or the market does not work effectively. Yet, regulation is not solely about price or competition. It is very important that our utilities, for example, have resilience built into them so they are capable of surviving future technological developments. Research and development is needed in order to keep infrastructure up to date. The regulator must incentivise a resilient, secure and future-proof utility.

The second challenge is a difficult one which might be termed ‘asymmetric incentives’. In a nutshell, if a regulator allows something to happen that does harm, then there is trouble. If, on the other hand, a regulator stops something that might have done good then the consequences may be rather small, if any. That constitutes an obvious incentive to be cautious. Now, unless regulators can be held to account for all of their decisions, then the danger is that asymmetric incentives will continue to distort regulation.

The third problem, which the government has long been aware of, is that of encrusted regulation. It is very easy to add layer after layer to existing regulation: much harder to remove. That problem can be dealt with by will power!

One challenging area of regulation occurs where science meets values. One of the most successful examples in the UK concerns the technologies aimed at halting the transmission of mitochondrial diseases from carrier mothers to new-born children. People have very strong values-based, often religious-based, beliefs about embryo technologies.

The question then is ‘Whose values trump whose?’ The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was set up at a time when stopping mitochondrial disease transmission in this way was not thought possible. The regulator has worked with technology as it has evolved. Furthermore, HFEA’s structure has allowed it to conduct a conversation with the public and other stakeholders. Indeed, there was great deal of that discussion leading up to the (free) votes in both Houses of Parliament that enabled this therapy to proceed on a regulated basis.

Here, a clear distinction was made between science and values. At the end of the day the plurality of values was resolved by a democratic vote. Now, an interesting challenge for Europe is that while values differ within countries, they differ between countries as well. Embryo technologies are not very popular in countries such as Italy. Germany too, has difficulties because of its history. It may be that a solution will involve some kind of subsidiarity.

Providing advice

The role of the science adviser is to provide advice, of course, but also to recognise that the people who make tough policy decisions have to look at issues through different lenses. Take the climate debate. In surveys of the public, about three-quarters are fairly or very concerned about climate change and believe the use of fossil fuels should be reduced.

A similar percentage are concerned about the UK becoming too dependent on energy from other countries (the energy security issue) and a similar percentage are concerned that electricity and gas will become unaffordable. That is the policy-makers’ challenge – the trilemma of sustainable, secure and affordable energy. Once again this illustrates the challenge: clear discussion would make it easier for policymakers to make clear choices.

Published 21 May 2015