The future of the BA

September 15, 1995

For over 100 years, journalists have thought of "the BA" not as an organisation but as a week, round about the end of the silly season, when science erupts all over the newspapers. As an annual fixture, it has proved surprisingly durable. It has probably attracted more public attention this week than the Trades Union Congress, and the Liberal Democrats, meeting next week, would kill for the publicity the BA has received.

11 = /The annual BA meeting has survived in something like its 19th-century form despite the changing nature of mass communications, the launch of competing events (SET Week and the Edinburgh International Science Festival) and the advance of science itself.

This week's BA programme shows that the basic formula - an expert lecturing to a group of interested non-experts about his or her work - is still valid. From cures for cancer to high-energy lasers, vision, fossils, or genetic screening, most forms of science adapt well to the treatment. The BA is also adept at including quirky extras - this year pigeon racing and sports science are among the side dishes.

And despite the insistence of Sir Martin Rees, president of the BA, and many other speakers, that innovation often arises from pure science, the BA is a willing convert to the government agenda on science as a driver for industrial renewal. The diffusion of technological innovation, industry- university relations (including a lecture on graduate development sponsored by The THES), the future of work and key engineering technologies for the future are all on the agenda. But most of all the BA is the week when the wilder shores of cosmology, human behaviour, environmental change or mathematics are made temporarily visible to inhabitants of the everyday world.

There is plenty for the BA to do if science is to enhance its role in British life. Many of the problems of recent years may be eased if moving in with the Royal Institution is a success. The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are second only to the BA as a means of popularising science, and although both sides insist that they plan only cohabitation, it is hard to imagine that the relationship would end there .with so much scope for a body presenting science to the outside world.

There is already a sea of newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV programmes, books and other channels for putting science in front of non-scientists. But there is a real gap in the lack of machinery for getting people to read and watch in a manner which helps genuine understanding. Given the incentive - a waste incinerator next door, or a family disposition to genetic disease - people soon get to grips with complicated technical subjects. In our scientific and technological society, we all use computer systems and electronic equipment and depend on medical research to keep us alive, whether or not we understand how they work. Given the sweeping effects of these developments, it is unsurprising that people are often cautious about their effects. One test of the future role for the BA or any successor body such scepticism rather than brushing it off as irrational.

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