Why I ...believe scientists should be less ashamed of their passion

October 21, 2005

I'm a physicist; the nerd of the PhD student pack, if you believe the stereotype. But I haven't got a beard and I don't own a pair of sandals (the thought of sandals with socks gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies).

I have many non-scientific interests and I will bounce with Tigger-like enthusiasm about pretty much anything.

Oh, and I'm female. All this means that I'm allowed out of the scientific cage for the public eye to inspect.

In fact, I'm positively encouraged to hop past the chicken wire and perform my tricks to amuse all the non-scientists out there. I do a huge amount of science communication, and I really enjoy sharing my love of science with other people, young and old. But sometimes I wonder exactly what the longer term aim is.

Science communication, which is now firmly established as a Good Thing, attracts oodles of funding, but I get the impression that it has been offered in the hope that someone else will have the good idea.

Showering money around, hand-waving about initiatives and puffing ourselves up with importance about fulfilling this essential but unappreciated role... all these things will get us to the wedding, but after the honeymoon period of excitement is over, what are we really trying to do?

To improve the uptake of science at A level and university, you need a change that lasts, not a temporary glut of money to be withdrawn when fashion moves on. Communicating science should not take place only through scientific interpreters - all scientists should take a role in informing the public about what we do.

We shouldn't need interpreters. Scientists should be less ashamed of science. So many of my PhD peers when asked what they do cough and mumble something into their sleeve about biosciences or electron microscopy, thus ending the conversation.

But other than the mass media, friends and family are most people's major source of information about society. A public lecture is not the only way of saying our piece as scientists, and it's not necessarily the best way, either.

Pondering this recently, I worried about how evangelistic science communication can seem. I disapprove of religious missionaries because I think that telling other people how to live their lives is a bit arrogant, to say the least. But I tell non-scientists how interesting and wonderful science is, implying that I know better. How am I different?

The answer is that I'm not giving them the answers. The whole point of science is that it's a tool, not a doctrine. The truth is only what we've found out so far. There's always room for improvement, and we accept that.

We need to show people how interesting the current answers are and demonstrate that we are critical of them and are looking for ways to improve. The more of us who participate in this process and interact with society, the easier it will be to get our message across.

And the easier it will be on people such as me. I have had to turn schools away because I simply do not have the time to travel to Kent or Surrey to talk to a group of primary school children about science. Is there no one local, I ask the desperate teacher on the other end of the phone? The answer is invariably 'no'.

Communicating should be an important part of any scientist's job, and being a good communicator should mean that I'm taken more seriously by my colleagues - not less seriously, as is so often the case. I would like to invite my fellow scientists to follow me through the chicken wire...

Helen Czerski is a PhD student at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, and The Times Higher 's media fellow

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