February 3, 2009

Why Turning Out Brilliant Scientists Isn't Enough

A brilliant article by Prof. Robert Winston from New Scientist magazine (31 January 2009):


THIS year sees the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's influential Rede lecture on the "two cultures", in which he argued that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. One of his premises - that those problems would be solved by better science - now seems a little naive. However, his point that the sciences and humanities need to learn to communicate better, and people to understand each other better across the divide, is as pertinent as ever.

In the UK, the issue of how scientists engage with - and, crucially, listen to - the public has become increasingly prominent since the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology held an inquiry into Science and Society in 1999. Before this, many believed that for people to trust more in the value of science, it would be enough for scientists simply to educate the public. These days it is widely understood that fostering public engagement - rather than just mere public understanding - is of key importance.

This makes sense. Most scientific research in the UK is paid for by the taxpayer, and when technologies have a negative impact the consequences can be profound for everyone. The scientific knowledge we pursue is public property. We scientists have a duty not merely to tell people what we are doing (a skill not taught as well as it should be in most universities), but also to listen to people's fears and hopes and respond to them, even when we feel their antagonism to be ill-founded. Being open in this way has been shown to have real advantages. A good example is the success of the ScienceWise project set up by Kathy Sykes at the University of Bristol, UK, which uses public dialogue to help policy-makers reach better decisions about science and technology issues.

A two-way dialogue - communication in the fullest sense - seems more likely than a one-way lecture to lead to a maturing of views and resolution of conflict. It can help scientists to accept that some public concerns may be justified, and that recognising them can improve their science; and it makes the public aware of the good intentions of scientists. If we show that we care about the ethical implications of our work, people are likely to be more sympathetic. Dialogue has been shown to be a much more constructive and valuable process than the web-based consultations and opinion polls that policy-makers previously relied on, and has been very successful in the public discussion about embryology and nanotechnology.

Science organisations have started to recognise that people need to think about these issues early in their careers. Many of the programmes run by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which this month relaunched as the British Science Association (BSA), increasingly encourage improved scientific literacy among school students.

Indeed the science community as a whole is starting to acknowledge that it must interact with the public more fully. When I started making science television programmes, I was frequently accused of dumbing down. After the BBC transmitted The Human Body series 10 years ago, I was painfully ostracised at scientific meetings and at the Royal Society, even though the series was viewed by around 19 million people in its first weeks and widely used as teaching material in schools. Now it is a delight that TV science programmes by colleagues such as Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey, Marcus du Sautoy of the University of Oxford and Kathy Sykes are seen by many scientists as valuable contributions to public engagement.

We need to do much more. We have a duty to conduct research to ensure that the ways we attempt to engage really do have an impact, yet there is still no consensus on the best way to conduct such studies. In the UK we must make certain that the increasing sums of money that bodies such as the research councils and the Wellcome Trust are prepared to spend on public engagement are not wasted.

University science education also needs to improve. We turn out excellent chemists, physicists and biologists, but their education is not always well-rounded. Too few science undergraduates explore the ethical issues of their subject, and young scientists often seem to think they deal in certainty and "the truth". The nature of science is much more complex. In this respect, the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative run by the UK Higher Education Funding Council and the research councils should be valuable, encouraging university students to be more involved with societal issues and researchers more open about their science and its implications.

C. P. Snow may have been right in arguing for better connection between science and the arts, but not necessarily about identifying two distinct cultures. The remarkable creativity of science is an integral part of human culture and it needs to be thought of in this way. We scientists can help bring this about by engaging with the wider world about what we do and its implications for society. We need to show that we too have human values. Snow would surely have approved.

Robert Winston is Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, London.

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