The appliance of science

Scientists feel that journalists don't understand them. A new media centre could bring the two camps together, writes Tristram Hunt
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The Independent Online

Science is dictating how we live with a brutal momentum. Climate change, surveillance technology and, now, bio-terrorism are unassailable components of modern society. Yet the British public is still ignorant of the most elementary aspects of scientific inquiry, and the scientific establishment is arrogantly complicit in that ignorance.

While much of society is now media-savvy, science has been left behind. Groups opposed to scientific research are always there to take the call. And scientists have shown a masochistic lack of interest in public debate; their preferred medium is the rarefied pages of peer-reviewed journals such as Nature. Scientists have a proper concern for the discipline of their method and are wary of speaking out before their thesis has been tested by colleagues. The memory of the cold fusion "breakthrough", later proved horribly wrong, weighs heavy. Pressure groups talk in the black-and-white language loved by reporters; academics are usually more diffident.

Scientists have been further scared away from public engagement by the media frenzy around GM technology in 1999, science's annus horribilis. The reduction of a complex branch of biological engineering to "Frankenstein food" was typical of media hopelessly ill equipped to discuss scientific progress rationally. And into the vacuum stepped big business. What inflicted the greatest damage on GM science was that the case for the defence was fronted by the bio-tech groups Monsanto and AstraZeneca.

Science's self-abnegation has undermined support for the very principle of scientific endeavour. At a time when most people glean scientific knowledge from the media, a refusal to engage with the popular press has been deeply detrimental. But this hapless amateurism may be about to change. Next month comes the official launch of the Royal Institute's Science Media Centre – a belated attempt to claw back some of the lost ground in public trust.

The centre is the brainchild of the institute's director, Susan Greenfield, and the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton. As an Oxford professor in pharmacology and a media don, Greenfield has watched the collapse of faith in science and trust in scientists. Much of it, she believes, can be put down to an often unintentional media bias. While lobby groups get their message out quickly, science is left behind by the media cycle. Greenfield's aim is to help journalists to find the right scientist to talk to at the right time. "We need to help scientists understand the demands of the media," she says. And it is vital, says Lord Bragg, "that scientists learn to communicate if they are not to be marginalised".

The centre's target is busy news journalists who need the "science view". The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, says that making sure all journalists have a grasp of science issues is the only way to "raise the debate above tabloid sloganising". The challenge is to place science firmly in the public realm, where "it can be discussed properly as part of general news and culture".

The Royal Society is now taking a more proactive stance on science controversies. Recent briefing papers on stem-cell therapy and nuclear energy have been deployed with far greater media acumen than usual. Stories are being placed and even "leaked" – a sure sign of professionalism. Also in London, the Science Museum is providing a forum for pro-science pressure groups and universities to meet; next year the British Association for the Advancement of Science relocates to the museum's Wellcome Wing.

Is all this making a difference? Things do seem to be improving slowly. Most people remain opposed to GM technology but are less opposed to researching it. Government support for the animal research company Huntingdon Life Sciences met with general approval. Parliament passed a Bill allowing research into stem-cell therapy.

The idea that the more we learn about science the more we will love it is misguided. We can know as much as we like about genetic engineering and still oppose it. But with proper debate, we would at least have sufficient knowledge to choose whether to embrace new discoveries or fear them. At the moment we are given only half the story.