Make the public part of science

March 12, 2004

Your report of the chancellor's breakfast meeting about science ("Image dogs UK science, say leaders", March 5) disappointed and saddened me.

It is not true that there is a growing anti-science culture in the UK. Claiming that there is hides the real and more fundamental problem and means that we do not address it.

The evidence is clear. People recognise the benefits that science and technology have brought and can bring to our quality of life. In a survey for the Wellcome Trust and the Office of Science and Technology ( Science and the Public 2000 ), only 10 per cent of people questioned disagreed that "science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable". Indeed, 72 per cent agreed that "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the government".

That is hardly indicative of an anti-science culture. We should not assume people are anti-science when in reality they are, for example, not supportive of particular technologies, anxious about particular ethical issues or just not very interested and engaged.

So, what is the problem? I believe it is a serious and widely shared sense of unease: partly about the pace of scientific and technological development and partly about the governance and regulation of science and its applications through technology; about who can be trusted; and about people's sense of powerlessness and distance from the process, and their ability to influence it.

The House of Lords committee on science and technology recognised this in its report Science and Society but, if your article correctly captures the sense of the No 11 meeting, the scientific and political communities have not yet fully understood it nor accepted its implications.

Science cannot be advanced and sustained in a modern democracy, nor people attracted into science courses and careers in a sustainable manner, unless it connects fully with society's concerns, needs, priorities and values. We need a much more open and extensive engagement of scientists, policy-makers and decision-makers with the public: listening and being seen to listen and respond, and not just when there is a crisis.

If we do not invest in the "real" science base - the engagement of people and communities with scientists and policy-makers in discussion for mutual influence - then we cannot be surprised if we fail to sustain participation in formal science education and in the research base. The problem is one of openness, transparency, respect for the public and trust; not one of science per se.

Roland Jackson
Chief executive, British Association for the Advancement of Science

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