Explain or die: why science can't afford to keep secrets from the people

Researchers have a duty to make the public appreciate their work, says Arnold Wolfendale
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The Independent Online
Frederic, the pirate apprentice in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, was "the slave of duty" - a state of affairs that did him no harm at all in the end and which, ultimately, led all involved - pirates, policemen and pretty girls - to live happily ever after.

Last Friday, the Office of Science and Technology released a report, The Public Understanding of Science, Engineering and Technology, drawn up by a small committee that I chaired. The committee's report invokes the word "duty", too. It hammers home its message that "scientists, engineers, and research students in receipt of public funds have a duty to explain their work to the general public".

For some years now, there has been a general agreement among scientists and engineers that public understanding of science is "a good thing". But care must be taken with "understanding" - a better word is perhaps "appreciation" - since much of science (and by science I include engineering and technology) is very technical. Indeed, at the cutting edge, few really "understand" it: the idea of backward journeys in time represents a contemporary example.

What is crucial, however, is that all of us involved in research must make every effort to explain what we are trying to do and to set it in perspective. If, as a result of our efforts, only a glimpse of the scientific method, an appreciation of "why bother" and the fact that scientists are only human, comes across, then we will have succeeded. It is important, too, to get across the shortcomings of science or at least its incompleteness. For example, a knowledge of the science alone is not enough for the public to decide whether or not to continue further with nuclear fission.

The committee believes that there is a real need to train researchers who seek to promote public understanding. Such training in communication skills is of considerable value - whether the researchers choose to go into science or not. One aspect that is perhaps less evident is the role of public understanding in maintaining the flow of funds for basic research in science into science. Britain is putting increased emphasis on the role of scientific research for wealth creation. As a country, we are not unique in that, and few dispute the need to harness the country's scientific resources, not least to satisfy the many calls on the nation's wealth to support health, education and so on. Basic research in those areas of science that have a chance of practical application is comparatively in favour. It is easy to make the case for obviously applicable research. One of the tests of our maturity as a nation will be how we view the case for those sciences that do not appear to have an immediately practical outcome.

It is "big science" (more accurately called "the most basic sciences"), epitomised by astronomy and particle physics, however, that is at risk. During the Cold War, space research and nuclear matters were political priorities for support, lest "the other side" got ahead. The related "pure" areas in astronomy and particle physics tended to benefit in their wake. Now, although the Cold War is at an end, our basic science programmes still need supporting in their own right. We have some of the best practitioners in the world and these subjects are of great intrinsic interest to mankind. These subjects address the most enduring of all questions: what is the material world really made of? Where do we come from? What (and who) is out there? It can be rightly argued that the UK - pioneer in so many areas of these sciences - has a responsibility to do its share of the world's effort.

This is where each researcher must be a "slave to duty" because only if we can get across to the public - and by public we must include the politicians and other policy formers - the many reasons for supporting the basic, and expensive, sciences, will we receive the necessary funds.

The writer was the 14th Astronomer Royal; he is now president of the Institute of Physics.