Jamboree has had its day

March 14, 1997

It's Red Nose Day! It is also the day Ian Taylor, minister for science and technology, launches the National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology. These two festivals have much in common. They support good causes. They promote fun events.

We admire the enthusiasm everyone puts into Science Week. But all is not well in the public understanding of science and engineering field. It is desperately short of money and too reliant on philanthropy for funding; it lacks co-ordination and agreement on priorities; and it expends energy on high-profile events at the expense of long-term projects.

The vibrant community dedicated to promoting science is more energetic than established and more enthusiastic than enlightened.

In the face of revolutionary developments in technology and genetics, the need for public understanding of science has never been greater. Lack of knowledge disenfranchises people from understanding the world they live in and which their descendants will inherit. They miss the enrichment and enjoyment that comes with knowledge of how the world works.

A community of communicators has developed in response to this need. Ten years ago, a small number of gifted scientists, museums and continuing education departments worked largely in isolation. Now all scientists are considered to have a duty to proclaim their work and activists cluster around bodies such as the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

However, this group has not reached a consensus on what it should achieve. The Year of Engineering Success wishes to promote the image of engineering. COPUS is more interested in developing understanding of scientific principles and of the value of science to society. The aims of Science Week are as varied as those of the hundreds of organisations involved.

Are we addressing the most important needs in the right way? Diversity of aims is important but there can only be one ultimate mission: a scientifically empowered society. The way this is pursued is confused, often haphazard and usually hampered by a severe shortage of funds.

Some of the core institutions are desperately short of long-term funding. Too many ideas are chasing too few grants: the volume of people participating has probably grown a hundred-fold in ten years and is still expanding. Once dominated by the physical, natural and medical sciences, science communication now embraces the application of science, particularly through engineering and health but also in areas as diverse as heritage and sports science.

In the face of this expansion, our community of communicators remains largely reliant on philanthropy for funding. There is the philanthropy of the state: the Office of Science and Technology has a mission to promote public understanding of science and technology but its funding still does not attract much strategic forethought and long-term planning. There is the philanthropy of charities: the Wellcome Trust and the Millennium Commission have been central in ensuring the survival of organisations and projects. And there is the philanthropy of individuals: working on projects that often distract from their careers and are rewarded only by personal satisfaction. How does the community of communicators move from an ad hoc existence to a secure financial future?

Funding is not the only problem. There is confusion and duplication of roles, poor communication and networking with new entrants, and a lack of strategy and leadership. Activists rush chaotically rather than stride strategically and push to new frontiers before consolidating existing gains. The field is new, innovative and expanding, but the excitement has distracted attention from the underlying problems. We question whether the current level of action is sustainable.

Key funders need to move further toward systematic investment in long-term programmes. Funding needs to be underpinned by foresight - identifying the synergies between what is needed and what can be achieved. The success of the National Technology Foresight Exercise in developing a consensus on priorities provides a role model. Such an exercise should be launched as soon as possible with COPUS or OST in the lead.

Five outcomes are desirable: * a ten or 20-year campaign to solve the problem of public understanding of science. * a revitalisation of COPUS or an extended role for the British Association to guide development. * a shift in effort from jamborees such as Science Week to investment in programmes such as the Pupil Researcher Initiative. * integration of efforts to improve the school curriculum and promote science and engineering. * formal recognition of the need to develop science communication as a profession.

Can the minister help equip this field for the millennium and beyond? Otherwise, we risk too much activity without result, effort without reward and disillusionment among committed activists. And we risk leaving public understanding of science and engineering largely untouched.

Andy Boddington and Trudy Coe are directors of Buckingham based Evaluation Associates Ltd.

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