Guest post by Guy Micklethwait
Recently Lord Martin Rees, a University of Cambridge professor and president of the Royal Society, gave a talk at the Australian Academy of Science. The Shine Dome was filled to capacity, as he spoke about the role of science in facing the upcoming world challenges over the next 50 years. He made some interesting points about science communication:
First: that research was only one part of the role of scientists; the other part was communicating their research to the public, to other scientists and to politicians. He felt this was important because he wanted policy makers to get the best possible advice – based on high quality science.
Second: “The GM [genetically modified] crops debate went wrong in the UK because scientists came in too late.” Ongoing protests to industry had already polarised the argument and British public opinion had become anti-GM before scientists had joined the discussion. He said that in the UK they didn’t want this to happen with nanotechnology, so they were making sure that scientists were involved in that discussion right from the start.
Third: that it is important to engage with the public at a conceptual level without too much detail, so that they can become aware of the issues. He said that everyone had a right to participate in public debates about controversial scientific developments such as nuclear power and designer babies, but that “citizens all need at least a feel for science and a realistic attitude to risk.”
A member of the audience pointed out that as a member of the House of Lords, he was a politician as well as a scientist, and asked him whether he thought more scientists should become involved in politics. He replied that as a rule, he didn’t think scientists would make good politicians, but rather they should concentrate on communicating their science to the existing politicians.