Fill the knowledge gap and rebuild trust in science

March 17, 2000

Starting small in 1986, the public understanding of science has become big business. National Science Week - which starts today - is a timely point for the House of Lords to think what happens next.

In a report of rare depth and imagination, the Lords science and technology committee calls time on the era of the lack of public understanding of science (page 3). The age of public participation starts here. The deficit model under which the public lacked the knowledge is replaced by one where scientists have as much to learn as they have to communicate.

As their lordships say, "scientists are beginning to understand" how the public sees research, especially risk and uncertainty, a point that five little pigs in Virginia have made afresh this week. People also realise that public interaction is difficult. The Lords say the Department for Education and Employment attaches too little weight to public understanding in activities such as the research assessment exercise. The thousands of hours used up assessing teaching and research reduce the time academics have for other types of work. New ways of interacting with the public will be time-consuming and must be seen as a core activity, not a distraction.

New approaches are needed because public trust in scientists is low and commercial pressures mean a dearth of disinterested scientists whose advice all sides can trust. The Lords call for openness in scientific activity and for interests to be declared fully. New bridges are also needed. A small start would be for every research funder to have something like the Medical Research Council's planned consumer liaison group, which will give a voice to the people affected by MRC research.

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