An opinion piece by Rod Lamberts and I, published in the Canberra Times 16 April 2010:
Last week Sarah McKenzie wrote in these pages (Science needs a simpler voice – April 5) that she looked forward to the day when she could read a dedicated science section in the Canberra Times. We stand shoulder to shoulder with McKenzie in calling for greater public awareness of and engagement with science; as McKenzie mentioned, the last year or so has been replete with “a number of high profile, climate-change-denying columnists peddling anti-scientific messages”. We agree that there is much that needs to be done to facilitate better communication between scientists and the public, particularly on issues of wide social importance.
Yet as much as there’s a clear need for better communication between scientists and the public, continued emphasis on preaching to the converted – and that’s exactly what a dedicated science section in the Canberra Times would do – is going to do precious little to get the heathens into church.
Guest post by Chris Bryant
I was interested in Martin Rees’ comment, reported in Guy Micklethwait’s recent post, to the effect that the scientists of genetically modified crops entered the fray too late to have any impact. I followed the debate at the time with great interest.
The move against GM foods had been so severe in the UK that on 23 May 2002, Prime Minister Blair decided to address the Royal Society. He said it was time to end the air of suspicion and mistrust – and the ignorance – with which the public sometimes viewed the work of cutting edge scientists. He promised to break down the anti-science fashion in Britain and claimed he would never give way to misguided protesters who stood in the way of medical and economic advances. And this is where he got into trouble with both the scientists and the science communicators.
On 24 May, 2002, The Times newspaper reported that
the Prime Minister is privately furious at the actions of protesters which have resulted in work being held up on research into genetically modified foods, and at disruption that could threaten a neurological research project in Cambridge aimed at helping sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. He is angry over the regular description of GM foods as ‘Frankenstein foods’, and at the way science was blamed for the BSE emergency. ‘BSE was not caused by bad science but by bad practices’.
Blair’s problem, and that of his Government, was that he defined science in terms of politics and the economy. The address caused great outrage on the Internet, with reputable scientists pointing out that because they had misgivings about GM foods they were not anti-science. Continue reading
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.