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[SEOUL] Science communicators should encourage public debates about science and technology, rather than simply tell people about the subject, a conference has heard.

The call was made yesterday (17 May) at the ninth conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) in Seoul, South Korea.

Hee-Je Bak, a professor of science communication at Kyung-Hee University said public debates about science and technology can promote a better balance of power between scientists and the public, especially in the developing world.

He said that efforts over the past few decades to teach people about science and technology through public hearings on government decisions, citizens' advisory committees and surveys had been far from satisfactory.

Bak told SciDev.Net that researchers tend to avoid interacting with the public directly because they think public understanding of science is too limited to make it worthwhile, but that this is partly because scientists are often hard to understand.

He pointed out that the situation has been different when scientists have been forced to defend their work because of public opposition, as in the case of research into genetically modified crops.

Bak says that groups such as the PCST can help by promoting debate between scientists and the public, so that citizens can influence the direction of research to bring maximum benefit to them.

Bruce Lewenstein, a professor at Cornell University and a member of the executive committee of the PCST says that the two goals of promoting debate and conveying information are not contradictory.

"If the public is to participate in a debate, they must first know some basic information about it," he says.

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