Podium: Science must allay the public's fears

From an inaugural speech by the president of the Association for the Advancement of Science
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The Independent Culture
IF WE look back some one hundred and sixty years to the foundation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831 we would find the Industrial Revolution in full swing, with science, engineering and technology making huge advances and bringing real benefits to the nation, to society and to individuals.

However, there were those who opposed what they could see happening; people who saw danger in new developments and feared that things were moving too fast.

At the same time many of the opponents of this change had little understanding of what they were protesting about - "Science is a myth - engendered by the malevolent to disturb the innocent."

Our founders had a firm conviction that science was of crucial importance to society, and that there must be a forum in which people could come into contact with scientists to air their views and concerns, and also to learn more about what underlay scientific and technological advances.

It was at the meeting of the BA in Oxford in 1860 that Thomas Huxley defended Charles Darwin's recently published theory of "evolution by natural selection" against those who opposed it, including the formidable Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford.

Through the years since then the BA has played an important role in the life of our nation by providing a forum for debate - and also of encouraging understanding of science and technology and their importance for the welfare of our society.

I believe that the original mission and objectives that were the vision of our founders are just as relevant at the end of the 20th Century as they were in 1831.

In our own lifetimes we have witnessed an unparalleled expansion of scientific knowledge. The application of advances in technology and engineering have changed the way we live - often in the most dramatic ways.

However, just as in the last century, we still have those who oppose scientific developments. There are those who see only danger and disaster rather than the opportunities science provides to improve our quality of life and meet the needs of people the world over.

Nuclear power is seen by them as a potential doomsday scenario; genetic modification of plants and animals to provide new food, and other products, is seen as a dangerous interference with the workings of nature; industrial processes are seen as polluting the air, contaminating land and destroying the environment.

Many of these fears are, of course, very real for those who see scientific advances as heralding Armageddon. However, they may be based upon a lack of real understanding of the issues involved. For many the rate of scientific advance is just too bewildering.

Therefore there is still an important role for the BA in providing access, for any who want it, to an understanding of science and technology.

It still provides an opportunity for scientists, engineers and technologists and members of the public to meet for discussion; to inform, to explain their work and its context and to debate matters of concern.

In his Presidential address to the Aberdeen meeting of the Association in 1859 Prince Albert, who saw very clearly the importance of science for the nation's health, bemoaned the lack of attention to the sciences in the curricula of our schools and universities.

They were, he said, "almost systematically excluded from our schools and university education" (and he was right). He went on to commend the BA for its work to correct this deficit.

The problem the Prince Consort identified is still to some extent with us, and our young people still need to be encouraged to take up science at school and university.

The BA still continues its valuable work with young people, encouraging them to be scientifically literate, to see exciting careers in science, engineering and technology and to be able to understand the potential in science and technology to create wealth and improve the quality of their lives.

We must use science, technology and engineering to ensure the prosperity of the nation - to improve the quality of life and to create wealth.

However, we must also understand what the real risks involved are and see them in perspective; we must allay unfounded fears; and we must create a better understanding and develop mutual respect between the public and the scientific community.

These are matters that lie at the very heart of the BA's mission and I hope that next year and in the years to come we will have an Association that is strong and well up to the task of delivering that mission.