Susan Greenfield

February 6, 2004

Can we raise scientific literacy, get researchers to discuss their work and give institutions a bit more cash in one move?

One of the joys of writing a column is that it can act as a conduit for contentious or even seemingly bizarre ideas. So, given that the following suggestion is merely the grit for a potential pearl, rather than itself being fully formed in any way, here is a potential solution to some of the various tales of worries that have crammed the pages of this paper in recent weeks.

First, the problem of the general public's scientific literacy. Despite what many say about the apparent thirst for science out there on the street, and despite assurances from some of my scientific colleagues that we are now trusted and that everyone is comfortable with how technology is advancing, my postbag and my personal experiences suggest the opposite - or at the very least that we could do more and better. Even if it were true that everyone in the UK was comfortable with science and understood it, there would be no room for complacency - the next generation has to be inspired, and people need to be kept up to date with the latest developments to engender informed debate.

Second, the argument over whether scientists are doing enough to engage with the public. When it comes to engaging with the public, many scientists would argue that they do not have the time, the experience or, indeed, the motivation to give talks to the great unwashed. After all, it is no small feat to take your life's work and passion and strip it of all technical terminology and jargon to make it accessible. It involves ignoring the peer-revered trees to reveal the entire wood to a general audience in a clear, accurate and appealing way. Small wonder that, until now, such endeavours have been left to a small minority of media-hungry, luvvie apostates who, in the eyes of many "normal" members of the white-coat community, are marginalised as "real" scientists. So how can the establishment be persuaded to enter into a dialogue with the public?

And third, the worries about the future of universities. Desperate for more income and uncertain of their position in society or of how mainstream they should be, universities are unclear as to their role in 21st-century society. As they are urged to admit half the nation's young, I wonder if those advocating such a huge intake have reflected on what might happen to those denied the campus experience? For the unlucky 50 per cent, universities would remain exclusive enclaves, and distaste for them might increase as a dwindling group is left behind.

These three problems might be resolved by the following. At weekends and evenings, the lecture theatres at most universities are mainly empty.

Meanwhile, the science faculty and graduate students and postdoctoral workers are often trapped in a monotony of routine teaching. What if there were an alternative that you might take up for just one year, and for which you would receive some kind of gain? Instead of teaching the same subject on the same courses to the same weary seen-it-all, done-it-all gum-chewing cynics, there could be the option of engaging with the public about your subject and responding to their fears, thoughts and excitements. In return, you would have teaching remission, extra money or both. You would also gain valuable presentation skills, and interacting with the public might allow you to see your subject in a broader and deeper way, and thus engender even more lateral thinking.

In turn, the public would start to see universities as part of the community. They would get to know their local scientists as people and could speak to them as friends or at least see them as familiar faces.

Science would acquire a human face, which might diffuse some of the fears fuelled by the worst of the megaphone media outlets.

It's hard to imagine that public events on campus would garner enough cash to solve any real financial problems any time soon. But such initiatives could join a general portfolio of imaginative ways in which universities could be seen to be attempting to raise funds.

Who would pay for this utopia? One possibility would be to have a pricing policy based on concessionary rates for students and pensioners, with the adult chattering classes in full employment paying a relatively small sum for what, hopefully, would be as exciting and stimulating an evening as going to the cinema or a concert, where no one complains when they have to buy a ticket. Such a scheme could be pump-primed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which subsidises museums. Surely such an exercise - resting as it would on talks, ideas and space - would be far cheaper to finance than exhibits. But, by the same token, the value for money would be enormous.

Baroness Greenfield is professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford and director of the Royal Institution.

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