Brussels, 06 Dec 2004
In our bid to communicate science effectively to the general public, we need to make science simple but not simpler, say the winners of the new Descartes prize for communicating science.
Scientists must be aware of the difference between simplicity and accessibility, explained the five winners, insisting that science should convey complicated concepts through the use of familiar language.
The Descartes prize for science communication was awarded for the first time in Prague on 2 December. The 250,000 euro prize was shared by five personalities from the worlds of science and the media, under three separate categories. The two winners in the category 'professional scientists engaged in science communication to the public', were Wolfgang Heckl, from Germany, for his ability to communicate the complex issue of nanotechnologies in an accessible manner, and British zoologist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough for his pioneering work in the field of wildlife filmmaking.
Two prizes were also awarded in the 'innovative action for science communication' category; one to Hungarian molecular biologist Peter Csermely for his initiative to help schoolchildren get involved in research, and the other to Belgian material scientist Ignaas Verpoest for his travelling exhibition 'Composites on Tour'.
The French TV journalist Vincent Lamy received an award in the 'Scientific TV/Radio Programme' category for his award-winning TV documentary on camouflaged insects (Face aux phasmes).
'Because the whole of society is based on science and because we live in a democratic society, is it important that everyone has an understanding of science,' said Sir David Attenborough.
'Innovation needs communication,' said Professor Heckl. 'Science is a unifying culture in Europe. Education and science must be the highest priority. Science literacy is the answer to many problems we are facing today. But science is not worth it if it is not for the benefit of society, and this is only possible if we include a dialogue with European citizens.'
Speaking about the difficulty of communicating to the public the risks of nanotechnologies, Professor Heckl insisted on the need for scientists to be pro-active and use dialogue to explain risks and opportunities. 'Society can only decide if informed,' he explained. 'Knowledge should not solely be in hands of firms that benefit from nanotechnologies but in the hands of everyone'.
'We have to be honest and tell the public if there are things we do not know,' he continued. 'We have to remember this is not the science of the scientist but the science of the public.'
All five winners agreed that it was important to display the process of science, and not simply the results, in order to make science more approachable. Professor Heckl explained his methodology to communicate science: 'Start simple, step up, take care of the audience you are talking to by making your topic relevant to their lives.'
The other winners agreed, underlining the importance of bringing people in by using a more personal approach, telling stories and using a more trans-disciplinary method to communicate science.
'We have done a very bad job until now of communicating science,' said Sir David. 'The level of ignorance on the matter is dreadful and widespread. The challenge is to try and bring people whose mindset is unaccustomed to basic science to understand the complex problems we are facing. Our responsibility is great, especially when one thinks of the speed at which scientists are making scientific advances. It is a demanding responsibility and an important task to tackle.'
According to the joint winner of the Descartes prize for outstanding cross-border research, Howard Trevor Jacobs, the EU needs to develop a long-term strategy to enable politicians to take decisions supported by public opinions. Educating children at the earliest stage is key to the democratic process, believes Professor Jacobs. 'Knowledge will mean the public will back politicians when taking decisions about research and science, because they understand the issues.'
In his acceptance speech, Professor Verpoest stated: 'I am very happy that the European Commission has created these Descartes science communication prizes, and I hope that it will support and encourage all scientists, young and old, not to forget their third task: communicate about their science to the general public.'
'Science communication is not a mission, it is a necessity,' concluded Professor Csermely. 'It is a self-developing process for scientists.'
For more information about the Descartes prize for communicating science, please go to: