Education: View From Here

What about an all science `Question Time' given over to genetically modified foods?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A FEW WEEKS ago I was on Question Time at the height of the furore over GM foods: it seemed a safe bet that in one guise or another a question would come up on that topic which I, as a scientist would be expected to field. On the long journey to the recording, I therefore made sure that I had done all my homework. If the facts weren't at my fingertips, they were at least somewhere in my grey matter - and though I would never consider myself an expert on the controversies, I was at least acquainted with all the issues.

Everything went as expected, and in due course a question on GM foods was indeed raised. However, what surprised me was that before I could settle into my carefully weighed arguments, a co-panellist had dismissed GM foods as a rupture of a pact with the Almighty, while another had condemned biotech companies as forces of evil. Now, this is not the place for me to argue against the validity of these propositions, nor indeed to set before you my own thoughts on GM foods. The whole point is that the issue wasn't sufficiently amplified in an atmosphere of calm debate. Instead, we escalated up into megaphone televisuals and moved on swiftly to other issues, such as the validity of Kevin Keegan holding a temporary position as football manager. Oh that I could have exchanged the time I was asked to pontificate on a subject that I knew nothing about, with something which I had taken pains to start to explore, and which arguably was having more potential impact on people's lives. Wouldn't it have been marvellous, I mused, if the whole of that particular Question Time had been given over to a scientific issue that was indeed rocking the nation?

After all, Question Time and its radio sister, Any Questions, are both the perfect formats for the kind of debate for which the public was, and is, in desperate need. Imagine if, instead of politicians, there was a panel composed of a clinician, an environmentalist, a biologist and a physical scientist or two. And imagine further if the questions were restricted to those related to science. The marvellous thing about Question Time and Any Questions is that the public has a chance to voice its views, and most important of all, to be seen to do so in interaction with "experts". Surely the point of "educating" the public in science is for them to be able to use that information to ventilate their fears and anxieties, express their opinions and take on board a wide range of stances? Although it is marvellous that there are books to read and programmes to watch, there is nothing like joining in yourself.

It would be a great idea if TV or radio would air such programmes. Sites like the Royal Institution could act as host to such events: indeed, I am sure there are science centres all over the country where these shows could be broadcast.

But this idea could be taken one step further. Let's imagine that the media just aren't interested, or even that the demand is so great that there are just too many panellists and too big an audience to fit into a prime-time pint pot. A parallel possibility could be that Any Questions and Question Time formats were held locally, without needing to be broadcast. Obvious venues for such events would be local universities. Most lecture theatres are dormant in the evenings and yet could accommodate several hundred people. Moreover, the scientists on each campus across the different departments, would be able to field a knowledgeable line-up. It strikes me that this would offer an exciting means for the local community to interact more with their university, and indeed, to get to know their local scientists. In turn, it would give the scientists a good opportunity to exercise their communication skills and to be accountable, in a broad social sense, to their paymasters.

In turn, central government might feel able to dig into their pockets to provide the modest funds required for appropriate staffing and administration of such events. After all, this would be achieving one of the most important points on the agenda for the next century of science, to work towards a truly literate society. Not only that, but at a time when many are still wary of higher education, it would offer an easy route for all generations to feel at home in an otherwise remote, ivory tower environment. Surely it is only in such ways that the general public will realise that scientists are not dysfunctional nerds in white coats bent on world domination. But they are truly as concerned about the issues of the day as is everyone else.

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford and a director of the Royal Institution