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People in both developed and developing nations feel increasingly isolated from science and technology, despite its rapid growth and increasing contribution to society, participants at a symposium on science communication heard yesterday (22 June).

To solve the problem, scientists need to appreciate how the public thinks about science and technology.

These comments were made by Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at the PCST (public communication network of science and technology) symposium in Beijing, China.

The situation is not confined to the United Kingdom, said Li Daguang, a professor of science communication at the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Public awareness of new science and technologies in China is low, he said, adding that the Chinese public lack the knowledge needed to distinguish between 'pseudoscience' and genuine evidence-based research.

Jackson discussed a recent survey of the public's engagement with, and attitude towards, science in the United Kingdom.

The survey said that 59 per cent of people do not feel informed about science or scientific developments. Half of those questioned felt that public consultations on scientific issues are simply public relations exercises that make no difference to policy.

Jackson noted that while such activities are common and popular in the United Kingdom, they do not attract people who are sceptical about science, and operate with the assumption that a scientific viewpoint is the place to start.

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that recent scientific advances are threatening many core human values, such as religious views on the origin of the universe.

"This is adding substantial tension to the historically strong relationship between science and society," said Leshner.

The traditional belief that increasing public understanding of science will increase it's acceptance by society is harder to apply today, said Leshner. He said scientists should engage the public in a dialogue about science and it's uses, stressing that each party should respect and respond the other's needs and concerns.

David Dickson, SciDev.Net's director said that although a dialogue initiated by scientists is needed, focusing excessively on the dialogue itself risks ignoring the need to base it on firm evidence.

In controversies on science-related issues, which are the most heated topics for debate, science communicators must ensure that positions are grounded in the current state of scientific knowledge, said Dickson.

Click here to view SciDev.Net's coverage of the PCST meeting in Beijing, where the presentations given by Jackson and Leshner can be downloaded.

Read more about similar issues in SciDev.Net's 'E-guide to science communication'

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