Now science must understand public

September 12, 1997

The one week of the year in which British newspapers fill up with science stories is upon us, having missed by a whisker seven days in which even a mass arrival of aliens on the Earth would have had trouble getting on the front page.

The British Association has renamed its meeting the Festival of Science, but it remains one of the most unchanged events in the media diary. The mix of amazing tales ("deception, lying and pretending"), attempts to make things we hated at school interesting (Chemistry is Fun) and pleas for more cash for science varies little from year to year, although in recent times both green concerns and the growth of genetics have impacted on the agenda.

Neither of these can, however, compete as growth areas with the one issue the BA has made its own - the public understanding of science. The BA is one of the bodies behind COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, which for almost 20 years has created a wealth of new activities designed to bring scientific information to the public in a digestible form. This has at least coincided with, if it is not the sole cause of, an eruption of science in print and broadcast media to the point where scientists are no longer entitled to complain about lack of coverage of their work even if the tone can make them wince.

In some ways, this success is the enemy of the BA's autumn science offensive. When every quality newspaper has a weekly science section, the Government fosters a science and technology week each spring, and Edinburgh hosts its own Science Festival, the BA's festival may seem less necessary. But this week's programme shows the association, and COPUS with it, moving into a field where the scientists' understanding of the public is at least as important as the public's understanding of science on issues such as the labelling of genetically engineered foods and the public response to their introduction.

The advantage of the BA is that these issues can be aired to a group wider than the introverted professional organisation, but with enough knowledge to produce considered responses. Audiences at the BA meeting may be in long-term decline, but one objective of science education ought to be to ensure that all public discourse on complex scientific topics - for example, whether it is worth building defences against an asteroid impact with the Earth - is at the sort of level found at an average BA session.

Despite the success of COPUS in starting new ventures, there is not much evidence that the scientific sophistication of Britain is on the up. Indeed, the success of the National Lottery suggests that simple statistics are beyond most people.

But there is clear evidence from the BA this week that one key group, the paymasters, is more willing than before to take science seriously. Margaret Beckett, whose trade and industry ministry oversees the research councils, made a speech calling for scientific understanding to run across all areas of government and of British life in terms that no politician would have used a few years ago. And although she did not come up with any more money, speakers such as Sir Richard Sykes of Glaxo Wellcome and Sir Derek Roberts of University College London, departing president of the BA, will have left her in no doubt that science is an urgent priority for any new cash the Government may find.

Despite the pressures on its practitioners, British science is a success, and must form part of the New Labour project for the new century.

The thing the BA has been doing for 166 years - putting interesting speakers (like Wilberforce and Huxley in 1860) in front of receptive audiences and even coining words like "dinosaur" - still has a role. Its problem is to recognise that its own success in raising awareness of science has added to the background noise with which it must compete, and to find new ways of doing so.

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