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01/10/2014

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Extracts from the Reith Lectures

Martin Rees considers the public face of science

Scientists and engagement

‘Today's scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature's laws by observation and experiment. But they should also engage broadly with society and with public affairs.

‘Indeed, their engagement is needed more than ever before. Science isn't just for scientists. We should all have a voice in ensuring that it's applied ethically, and to the benefit of both the developing and developed world.  We must confront widely-held anxieties that genetics, brain science and artificial intelligence may 'run away' too fast.  As citizens, we all need a feel for how much confidence can be placed in science's claims.’

‘The imperative for openness and debate ensures that any scientific consensus that emerges is robust and firmly grounded.

‘Even wider discussion is needed when what's in contention is not the science itself, but how new findings should be applied. Such discussions should engage all of us, as citizens, and of course our elected representatives.

‘Sometimes this has happened, and constructively too. In the UK, ongoing dialogue with parliamentarians led to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells – a contrast to what happened in the US. But we've had failures too. The GM crop debate was left too late, to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other.

‘But what about ideas “beyond the fringe”: the illusory comfort and assurance of the pseudosciences? Here there's less scope for debate. Both sides don't share the same methods or play by the same evidence-based rules. I've not found it fruitful to have much dialogue with astrologers or creationists.’

Protesting too much?

‘A word now about communicating science. Back in 1860, Darwin’s book The Origin of Species was a best seller: readily accessible - even fine literature - as well as an epochal contribution to science. What scientists today call “the literature” isn’t accessible in this way. But its essence can generally be conveyed, free of jargon and mathematics, by skilled communicators. The UK is fortunate in its cadre of science writers and journalists.

‘We scientists habitually bemoan the meagre public grasp of our subject -- and of course all citizens need some understanding, if policy debates are to get beyond tabloid slogans. But maybe we protest too much. On the contrary, we should be gratified and surprised that there's wide interest in such remote topics as dinosaurs, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, or alien life.  We should just as much deplore public ignorance of history or geography. It's indeed sad if some citizens can't distinguish a proton from a protein; but equally so if they can't find Korea or Syria on a map - and many can't.’

Media scrutiny

‘Misperceptions about Darwin or dinosaurs are an intellectual loss, but no more. In the medical arena, however, they could be a matter of life and death. Hope can be cruelly raised by claims of miracle cures; exaggerated scares can distort healthcare choices (as happened over the MMR vaccine).  

‘When reporting a particular viewpoint, journalists should clarify whether it is widely supported, or whether it is contested by 99 percent of specialists. Noisy controversy need not signify evenly-balanced arguments. Of course the establishment is sometimes routed and a maverick vindicated.  We all enjoy seeing this happen -- but such instances are rarer than is commonly supposed.

‘Scientists should expect media scrutiny. Their expertise is crucial in areas that fascinate us, and matter to us all. And they shouldn't be bashful in proclaiming the overall promise that science offers --it's an unending quest to understand nature, and essential for our survival.’

The lectures are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9

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Lord Rees
Lord Rees is President of the Royal Society.
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