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01/11/2014

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Things Can Only Get Better!!

Ian Gibson is gloomy

As another general election approaches I dread the consequences for science, technology and engineering.  Forgive me if I appear cynical but the road from 1997 until 2009 has, despite, achievements in doubling science budgets, student stipends, building new laboratories etc left much more to do to win public support and push governments’ commitments to science technology and engineering much higher on its agenda.

The science community was badly damaged by the saga of genetic modification of plants and on other issues like the current one on cervical cancer vaccination and the previous one of triple MMR jabs

Still distrust

Many scientists do not wish to address these issues given they are completely immersed in research assessment exercises, publications, grant awards, running their laboratories etc.  Science is neutral and divorced from the ‘black arts of politics’.  Since 1992 societies, individuals, the media, politicians and many other groupings have tried to captive public support and can point to a sea-change in activities in this area.

The public has reacted in hostile ways.  I fear that despite the millions of pounds ploughed into public understanding of science and the positive polls about trust in science, there is a distrust in science which can flare up on specific issues.   There is a lingering confusion about whether science is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ even if it is the use of the technology which is the essential debate.

Misreporting

A recent poll carried out by Ipsos MORI for the Royal College of Physicians found that seven out of ten British adults trusted scientists to tell the trust Politicians sharply contrasted with this where 13 per cent of the people trusted them. Even journalists reached a higher figure than this. And yet!!  The media can still produce headlines like ‘2 sausages can increase your chances of getting cancer by 20%.1  10 sausages and cancer is therefore guaranteed!

The recent headlines on cancer jabs has shown how science reporting, despite improvements in some newspapers, can easily be misrepresented. This is still part of the 2009 story.  All the current talk of impacts of science, commercialisation of science and the role of venture capital indicates a move away from basic research which may or may not have immediate practical applications.

Science for industry

Science is to be done in the interests of the Treasury and a few government ministers.  Where is the public in all of this?  How many members of the public sit on the determination research councils, societies etc?  What will 2010 bring to public understanding of science or science understanding of the public?

As the few scientists, I mean those who have practised it and published in peer reviewed journals, leave parliament it is left to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to educate the MPs.  I wonder how many will turn up?  Who cares anyway?  Policy is top down which will ensure that we will not see a science for the people but a science for industry.

Science will never achieve what it can until there is an understanding of the needs of people in the roles science and technology might play in health knowledge, caring services, the environment, astronomy and many more areas based on reliable evidence.  Until this revolution the public will have its views fashioned by the dailies despite the growing signs in 2009 that more young people are fascinated by science but prefer to opt for other subjects. 

1Daily Mail online 31 March 2008

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Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Ian Gibson was a Labour MP 1997-2009 and Chair of Science Select Committee 2001-2005. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of East Anglie
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