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How to increase public engagement in science

David Dickson's editorial (see The need to increase public engagement in science) is excellent, but I take issue with one generalisation and one omission.

He wrote:

"But a second factor that can also generate distrust is a 'we know best' attitude on the part of the scientific community. This, again, has frequently been a characteristic of some of those engaged in research on genetically modified food crops, who have argued that the benefits of such food crops is self-evident. Excessive technological optimism of this kind - the belief in the magic bullet, to use a medical metaphor - is misplaced in a world that is increasingly wary of claims by scientists that their work only solves, and does not create, problems."

For many scientists the last sentence is something of a 'straw man'. We recognise that every technology, whether new or old, has its problems. However, society is not a disinterested bystander. If a technology can be shown to offer the potential for valuable, maybe indispensable, benefits for future generations, we have a responsibility to address and solve the problems in order to attain, not absolute safety (an impossibility in any aspect of life) but a level of risk acceptable to society.

Science is society's tool for achieving just that.

The omission? There is no mention of the need for scientists, educators and journalists to be much more careful about the multiple different usages of the term 'science', and to engage in conveying the essence of science.

The common usages imply to the public that 'science' variously means:

  • All scientists ('the scientific community')
  • Government scientists
  • Industrial company scientists
  • Science facts we learn at school
  • What scientists do in laboratories
  • The results of scientific discoveries
  • How industry uses scientific discoveries
  • How governments use scientific discoveries

While each of these is an aspect of science, none of them embraces the essence of science, its core reality, which is of course scientific methodology. This is not difficult to explain to lay people, and I consider it to be the key to a truly scientifically-literate public, able to play a much greater and more effective part in the way that David Dickson suggests.