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 Chris Bryant
I have been pondering this question for a long time and it is especially apposite now, when we are surrounded by science communicators of all levels of competence. The best and most effective one I ever encountered in my discipline was Sidnie Milana Manton FRS (the photo was taken towards the end of her life).
I met her in my first week in the Zoology Department at King’s College London in 1955. She was a tall, spare, distant woman with greying hair and steel-rimmed glasses, and a high-pitched raspy voice that tended to become querulous with rage. It was not until I was assigned to her tutorial group in second year that I overcame the sense of awe I felt towards her and began to appreciate the outstanding quality of her mind.
She was an invertebrate biologist of great intellectual breadth. A major influence in her own career was a Royal Society expedition to the Barrier Reef in the 1920s. The collections she made then filled half the College museum and a good proportion of the London Natural History one as well. The less important material was trotted out for undergraduates to mishandle. In our final exam we had to dissect sea hares that she had collected on the Reef, more than thirty years previously. Most of their innards were, by then, liquid but she made no concessions. She remarked, of the finished work of one student, that it looked as if he had done it with his teeth.