The insatiable public thirst for scientific knowledge

People may not care for everything done in the name of science, but they care about science itself

WITH DEBATES raging in the press on everything from genetically modified food to the use of animals in medical research, it would be easy to suppose that science and scientists generally have a serious public relations problem on their hands. Certainly, this fear underlies a great deal of recent public debate, not least the widespread changes in the regulatory system for biotechnology that have just been announced by Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet enforcer. Could it be, perhaps, that public interest in and support for science are on the wane?

The answer is, I think, a resounding no. GM food may not be popular, but science itself has never been more strongly supported by the public than it is today. Wherever we look - at attendance figures in science museums and centres, at charitable giving for medical research, at commercial advertising - we find evidence of a positive attitude towards science.

Most striking, though, is the steadily rising popularity of science books written for the general reader, and the excitement that is building over the Rhone-Poulenc prize for science literature, which will be awarded tomorrow.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, the public profile of popular science books was fairly low. At that time, specialist science commissioning editors regularly grumbled about the difficulties involved getting publicity for their lists. "It's so unfair," one said. "A minor literary critic publishes yet another book on the Bloomsbury set, and gets a full page spread in the Sunday papers; I publish a brilliant science book by a leading international authority, and I don't even get a review."

Things have changed. For some years now, brilliantly written science books for the general reader have been pouring out of the publishing houses, and what's more, these books have been widely noticed and have sold well. It is almost normal now to find science books high up in the non-fiction bestseller lists.

Gone are the days when science commissioning editors struggled - first, to recruit authors, then to get notices, and finally, to secure sales. Now, literary agents scour the land for scientists who can write, and when they find them, they offer large advances in order to secure deals. Today, the biggest problem facing commissioning editors is not locating candidate science authors but rather distinguishing among a large number of extremely keen candidates likely to be most successful in the marketplace.

There are several obvious reasons for the present boom in popular science publishing. One is the general rise in the popularity of non-fiction in recent years. As fiction writers have struggled to find newthings to do with the novel, both authors and readers have been drawn to the comparatively untapped potential of non-fiction. After all, why pay for good writing alone when you can get good writing that's also informative about the real world?

A second reason for the boom is Stephen Hawking. The story of A Brief History of Time is now legendary: the decision by the wheelchair- bound Cambridge physicist to help pay for his daughter's education by writing a popular account of cosmology; the advice that each equation included would halve the potential sales of the book; the difficulty in finding a publisher willing to take the book on; and then the steady and sustained climb to the top of the bestseller lists around the world. Single- handedly, Professor Hawking changed publishers' perceptions of science books. Henceforth, only a fool could afford to ignore their potential.

At around the time Prof Hawking hit the bookstands, the English-speaking world happened to be blessed with an unusually large number of naturally gifted scientist-writers - people like Jared Diamond and Stephen Jay Gould in the United States, and Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones in the UK. When scientists happen to be able to write as well as these men do, the prospects for popular science publishing are bound to be good. On the back of A Brief History of Time, the past decade has seen an extraordinary output of works that literary critics as well as science watchers have found cause to admire.

As if these reasons were not enough to explain the rising popularity of science books, we have also to consider the impact of book prizes. In the late-1980s, the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science collaborated with the Science Museum in establishing an annual science book prize in the UK. This prize was transformed into something far more substantial (not least, for the winners) by the decision of Rhone-Poulenc to sponsor the prizes. Over the past 10 years, the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for Science Books - worth pounds 10,000 to the winner - has rivalled the leading literary prizes in capturing public attention for the very best.

Over the years, there have been obvious tensions in the awards process. The main difficulty has been that the popular science books are many and varied - from deep, almost philosophical works on the ideas and implications of science, to more practical guides to key topics.

In the very first year, for example, the award went to a British Medical Association guide to risk; but since then, it has been awarded to pretty demanding philosophical works such as Roger Penrose's essay on artificial intelligence and consciousness, The Emperor's New Mind, and Stephen Jay Gould's tour de force on evolution, Wonderful Life. This year, the shortlist for the Prize includes two biographies (both, as it happens, of little-known mathematicians), two very different books on the nature of the mind, a book on the biology of cancer, and a personal reflection on the unity of scientific knowledge.

Most of these books are written by scientist who write rather than journalists, and most are written by North Americans. These are not idiosyncratic features of the 1999 shortlist. The trend in favour of scientist-writers has been evident for some years, and previous judging panels have commented on the dominance of American books on their shortlists. Indeed, some have asked questions about the relative health of the scientific literary world on each side of the Atlantic.

Who ever wins the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for Science Books this year - and favourites are Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works, and Robert Weinberg's Renegade Cell - it is clear that once again, in 1999, there has been a rich harvest of science books for the interested general reader.

The fact that several of these books are, or will be, non-fiction bestsellers is something that scientists depressed at the latest crop of scientific scare stories in the press would do well to remember. The public may not care for everything that is done in the name of science, but it does care for the scientific enterprise itself, and not least for what that enterprise can tell us about the world we live in and our place in it.

The writer is Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College, London

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