I am a practising scientist, writer and broadcaster who has spent the last two decades working to make science more accessible and more a part of our culture by showing how scientists think about everyday problems, from the trivial to the profound (http://lenfisherscience.com/about-me/).
In recent times, I have been involved in developing strategies for coping with slowly developing catastrophic risks (e.g. http://lenfisherscience.com/preparing-for-future-catastrophes/; http://lenfisherscience.com/risk-and-resilience/; http://lenfisherscience.com/letter-in-nature; and especially http://lenfisherscience.com/avoid-major-disasters-by-welcoming-minor-change/) and in advising scientists on how best to communicate with politicians (e.g. http://lenfisherscience.com/what-scientists-need-to-know-about-talking-to-politicians/)
I believe that the present inquiry offers the House an opportunity to show real insight and leadership in fostering new approaches to the problem of science communication, which (despite many assiduous efforts) has to be regarded as a failure to date, as evidenced by the high level of scientific ignorance throughout the community. Carl Sagan’s pithy summary still holds true:
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and other industries; agriculture, medicine, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology.
We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
There are plenty of academic studies on science communication (e.g. http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/content_files/public%20engagement%20social%20media_Yeo_single.pdf; http://pus.sagepub.com/content/25/4.toc), and plenty of opinions will have been submitted to the committee. But there are three real questions, the first of which is not specifically mentioned in the Terms of Reference:
- The question of education.
Attitudes and understanding begin at primary school level, but few primary school teachers understand enough of science to share with their pupils its value and the way that it works. If we are to have a scientifically literate community, this question needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. There seems to be a clear agreement among experts that the best option is to form specialist teams of primary science teachers to travel between schools on a regular basis. Forming and funding teams of specialist primary science teachers should have the highest possible priority if the government is serious about promoting scientific literacy.
- The question of accessibility.
A common complaint about science and scientists is perceived remoteness. My view, based on experience and shared by many other professional communicators, is that no amount of “science communication” as commonly practised (including by myself) can overcome this problem, since communicators are usually preaching to the converted (e.g. TV audiences or museum visitors) or to captive audiences (e.g. high school groups).
From this point of view, the committee’s question about the balance of effort between ‘new audiences’ and the ‘already interested’ needs to be resolved firmly in terms of ‘new audiences’. I do not propose an instant solution, but suggest that among the various submissions particular notice should be taken of ideas of for the development of ‘new audiences’.
- The question of the extent to which public dialogue and consultation is being effectively used by Government in science and technology areas of policy-making.
I believe that this question is misconceived, since it is based on the assumption that there are specific areas of policy that involve science and technology, which can otherwise be ignored. But an understanding and appreciation of the value of science is imperative for all social and economic policies, for one simple reason: societies and economies are complex systems, and a scientific understanding of such systems is vital to the development of effective policy (http://lenfisherscience.com/preparing-for-future-catastrophes/).
Science provides the only valid route to such understanding, and especially to understanding and coping with the fact that the system as a whole may have emergent properties that are more than the sum of its parts. To take one simple example, banking crises happen when the whole banking system, with all of its complicated feedback loops, suddenly goes unstable as a whole, not just with individual banks (see article “Systemic Risk in Banking Ecosystems” by former Chief Scientific Advisor Lord May and the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v469/n7330/full/nature09659.html). Many other social and economic crises follow a similar pattern.
It is no longer sufficient to develop policy based on the dogma of any particular political persuasion. However strong the belief in that dogma, what is needed is a more rational and effective use of experts (http://www.nature.com/news/policy-advice-use-experts-wisely-1.18539). To this end, I would recommend that the House should set up an internal advisory body on the use of experts, whose remit would include promotion of the use of experts and the development of evidence-based policy across the whole of Government, with interdisciplinarity and modeling of complex systems being central features.
The great Victorian scientist T.H. Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) defined science as “applied common sense”. If it were, communication would be easy. Unfortunately, Huxley’s definition is nonsense, and one of the major difficulties in communicating science is that Nature does not always follow common sense rules (http://lenfisherscience.com/physics-takes-the-biscuit/). But it is possible to use common sense in formulating some basic procedures for using scientific advice and making science accessible, both to the policy-makers who need it and the public who would value more access to it. I urge the committee to take advantage of the present inquiry to show insight and leadership to promote the above approaches to this difficult, but highly important, area.
Dr Len Fisher, FRSN, FInstP, FRSC, FRACI, C.Chem., FLS
Visiting Research Fellow
School of Physics
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1TL