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23/08/2014

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Lisa Jardine, the Association's next President

The Association’s next President, Lisa Jardine, tells Wendy Barnaby that she wants to make science matter

The Association’s next President, Lisa Jardine, tells Wendy Barnaby that she wants to make science matter.

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The incoming President of the Association, Lisa Jardine, says that she accepted the presidency partly out of vanity. ‘I think I have a facility for making science matter to people,’ she says. And this is crucial, she adds, because people will only take scientific information on board when it matters to them.

‘You go into a cancer clinic,’ she explains, ‘and all around you are barely-educated people intelligently discussing their cancers.  It’s just that people don’t understand until it matters to them. People don’t just absorb scientific information for the hell of it, and they have far too much on their minds to go and seek it. So when you’re upset that people don’t know what you’re talking about it’s because you haven’t made it matter to them.’ 

She has a strategy for making science matter: ‘I do that by telling stories and not letting people get afraid.’  She cites her Point of View slots on Radio 4 as examples of story-telling. In March, for example, her support for data sharing and open access emerged from the story of John Flamsteed and Isaac Newton’s battles over the publication of data on comets and stars.

Second time round

Lisa Jardine is Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College, London, and Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It’s not the first time she’s been asked to be the President of the Association. After she refused the first time she was, she says, ‘castigated – in the nicest possible way - by eminent male scientists in the House of Lords for not taking it. They said that this is such an important organisation, and as someone who moves comfortably between arts and sciences and a woman, it’d be good if you could find room for this. So when I was asked again I said yes.’

She is appalled at our society’s lack of understanding of science and the ‘panic’ scientific explanations induce in educated people:  ‘There is something quite shocking that we inhabit a world driven by science – science and technology make everything that happens in a day, happen – and yet people seem to have very little curiosity or understanding of what goes on in their life.’ 

More proactive

The purpose of public engagement, says Jardine, is making science part of the natural landscape that we inhabit. Her presidential address at the British Science Festival will be entitled, “Has public engagement in science stalled?” 

In her presidential year, she’d like establish ‘that you could do serious science compellingly and capture the public imagination.’  What would that lead to?  ‘That parents of primary-school children might ask for science from the early years.  That people might imagine that science played its part from toddlerhood, instead of being an add-on in secondary. 

‘John Krebs and I had a long conversation about galvanising the Association into a more proactive role.  It would mean programmes of engagement that were virtual, like TED talks.  If the Association could do TED talks, it would engage with a whole new constituency.  I think science fairs are fine, but they play into the hands of those who think that popular science is recreational rather than being the lifeblood of our community.’

The incoming President is very enthusiastic about the Association’s new CEO, Imran Khan. ‘Imran is a good online person, a social media person, a youth engagement person and I’m going to stand behind him and prod him to launch any number of ideas,’ she laughs.  ‘I don’t mind how many we launch that don’t work; we’re just going to launch lots of them.’ 

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Wendy Barnaby
Wendy Barnaby is Editor of People & Science
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