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Science & Technology: Baffled by bad science

The recent row over genetically-modified food has exposed our ignorance.
IF THERE is one thing which has come out of the recent explosion of anxiety over genetically modified foods, it is that neither the British press nor the British public are well-informed about science and technology. The only other surprise is that anyone should be surprised by that. After all, it is only in the last 10 years that we have insisted that all children study science up to the age of 16 as part of the national curriculum. And, unlike many other countries, there is no obligation on young people to study even one scientific or technical subject beyond that age.

It is not as if the great and the good of the scientific world are unaware of the problem. There are professors of the public understanding of science at Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College, and the big three science institutions - the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science - sponsor COPUS (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science).

COPUS was set up in the Eighties and draws its members from the media, museums, education, science and engineering, government, and public life. Its main focus is to pioneer ways of increasing understanding which could not easily be done by anyone else.

All these bodies beaver away at extending public understanding. The BA's annual conference is widely covered in the serious press. The Royal Society runs an annual exhibition entitled The Frontiers of Science, which aims to represent novel and important areas of basic research to the general public, and makes an annual award to the scientist or engineer who has done the most to promote public understanding. There are lectures, media briefings, websites and help-lines - all dedicated to helping the public get to grips with the latest advances and their implications for our lives. And museums dedicated to science have transformed themselves over the last 20 years into exciting and innovative resources for children and young people.

And yet, as no less than 19 fellows of the Royal Society pointed out in a letter to the press last week, although we have excellent scientists in this country, and decision-makers increasingly recognise when they are dealing with scientific issues, as a nation we seem to be incapable of judging whether we are dealing with good or bad science.

"It is a dangerous mistake, vividly illustrated by the events of the past week, to assume that all statements claiming to be scientific can be taken at face value," the fellows said.

There seem to be two issues here: that the public has very little understanding of risk assessment, or of the scientific method itself. Add to these two difficulties, which evidently afflict journalists as well as the wider public, a craving for absolute certainty which no one can supply, and you get the last few weeks' outbreak of Frankenstein potatoes and fish- faced tomatoes, which have annoyed so many scientists so much. Oxford University's professor of the public understanding of science, Richard Dawkins, is appalled by what has been going on.

"Obviously, not many journalists have a scientific education, but what we have seen is a sort of gleeful rejoicing in not understanding - a proclamation of ignorance. I wouldn't want to belittle the possible dangers of genetically modified food, but Frankenstein? This is descending into a kind of bogey- speak. It has echoes of medieval terrors and devils."

Professor Dawkins is clear that there are potential dangers in any scientific advance, but he is worried that this sort of hysterical reaction will create a backlash that persuades scientists and the companies they work for to hide any potential dangers there are in the processes they are introducing.

"It is not as if the art of hybridisation and selection is anything new. It has been going on for generations. A Pekinese is a genetically modified wolf, and a pretty bizarre one."

Dame Bridget Ogilvie, chair of COPUS, is equally forthright. The handling of the genetic-modification issue, she says, has verged on a national tragedy for this country. "I understand that the whole subject of food is highly emotive, especially after BSE, but there is a serious problem with the coverage of these issues. People need to be presented with the information, but in a responsible way. What people are forgetting is that BSE was induced by industry, and it was the scientists who quickly found out what was going wrong."

Dame Bridget is on the board of Zeneca, the British company responsible for the genetically modified tomatoes which have been in the supermarkets as puree for a number of years.

"What is not being said is that while we may be horrified by the way some agro-chemical companies have behaved, there are others which are completely ethical in their approach," she says. "I know that Zeneca has done everything by the book. The costs of scientific research are now so great that science has to work with industry. The problems lie in the regulation, and are more to do with government and industry than science itself."

Public understanding, Dame Bridget thinks, will only be built up over a long period of time, as people come to understand the science itself and the sort of risk assessment which new advances entail. What makes her angry are what she calls the "public frenzies" which are based, she thinks, on a wilful lack of understanding in some cases.

Part of the problem, Dame Bridget thinks, lies in the education system, in which so many young people still drop out of science completely at 16: "The A level system is called a gold standard, in spite of being so narrow. This is arrogant. It is actually taking a pride in people being bloody ignorant."