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Popular science needs more serious information

In response to your recent opinion piece (see Hope — not hype — should lead stem cell debate), I think it is normal that research groups take advantage of being the centre of attention to obtain funding or promote their field.

After all, we all think what we are doing is the most relevant activity on the face of the earth. And this is good. What is not normal is that certain groups hold the monopoly of this global attention.

This is not good for science, which requires a constant, serious and democratic debate to advance. The general public plays an important role, especially because funding ultimately comes directly or indirectly from a variety of public agencies.

One reason that the public can become biased in favour of a fashionable subject is the failure of the media to show not only the possibilities of a certain field, but also their limitations.

At present, the media love showing science fiction rather than science fact, which weakens the general scientific debate.

A second problem is the confusion of what constitutes science. Science sections in Brazilian newspapers and general magazines encompass topics ranging from environmental activism to alternative medicine. This broadness does not contribute to public education and debate; it is just misleading. I am not against environmentalism, but I just do not think that including a vast range of topics under the heading 'science' is educational.

A third misunderstanding relates to the people whom the media credit with a scientific innovation or discovery. Genomics in Brazil stand as a clear example of this. If one had access only to Brazilian media, one would think that Brazil had developed state of the art technology for sequencing DNA.

The fact is that Brazil acquired the sequencing know-how from the United States. That Brazil does not lead this field is borne out by the fact that it regularly needs to import updated sequencing machines from the United States, and work in Brazilian labs slows every time the US dollar rises in value because imported chemicals become more expensive.

There is no doubt that molecular biology, genomics and biotechnology have contributed considerably to other areas of science, and to society as a whole. Certainly stem-cell research will do the same.

Who dominates and determines the direction of the field is another issue and this should be defined by a clear and honest debate, involving the whole society. Journalists will be critical in communicating the issues surrounding this debate.