SCIENCE : Mad boffins and other science fictions

Ruth McKernan, a geneticist, looks at the image problem of scientists in response to Maureen Duffy's article last week initiating our debate on `monster myths'
"Ninety per cent of scientists are nutters." Then as an afterthought Leonard Low, 60, added: "But they're clever nutters." His definition was fairly typical of the people I interviewed in the market in Harlow, Essex, one Saturday afternoon in an attempt to gauge the public perception of scientists. People see us, at best, as an eccentric bunch of white- coated boffins and, at worst, verging on evil.

"When I think of scientists I think of vivisectors. Scientists are nutters. They want to muck about with nature. There's not much you can look back on and say that science was good for," said Mr Kline, 52.

We are viewed as uncharismatic oddballs - not the sort of person you would want to invite to a party. When I took courage and admitted to being one of these social misfits, interviewees were surprised. I did not appear to fit the mould.

But who do people think of when asked to name a scientist? Well, er, um ... Strangely, although most people I spoke to had a clear mental picture of a scientist, few could name one. A remarkable exception was Robert Lorrimer, 33, who runs a fabric stall on the market. He came up with George Porter, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking quicker than most contestants on University Challenge could answer a starter for 10. He followed this up by describing plans to interface his personal organiser with the Internet. He was not typical.

Where then does the perception of scientists as weird or crazy come from? According to three-year-old Francesca Guest, "Scientists are people who look for bones buried in the earth". She has learnt this from her book on dinosaurs. Presumably, others form their images of scientists from what they read, hear and see. If scientists are perceived as strange, it is because they are portrayed as such.

Films like Frankenstein, The Fly and Jurassic Park and television programmes such as First Born and Chimera may be entertaining, but they present a vision of scientists which, though memorable, is unrealistic. There is also a handful of media scientists, such as Magnus Pyke and Patrick Moore, whose extrovert mannerisms make science entertaining but also propagate the boffin image. In the real world, scientists are no more all nutters than all cabinet ministers are untrustworthy adulterers and all footballers are violent prima donnas. One expects that those in the public eye are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Perhaps it wouldn't matter that some people have a distorted view of scientists if they appreciated how science underpins our lives. Perhaps it would be OK if eccentricity were necessary for creativity and scientists were nevertheless admired for their contributions. Sadly, this seems not to be the case. Too many people distrust scientists.

A survey carried out in 1985 by New Scientist found science ranked below medicine and the armed forces as an institution whose leaders the public trusted. However, the credibility of doctors depends on decades of research by scientists developing a huge range of medicines, anaesthetics and vaccines and the success of generals relies on scientific research in aeronautics, radar and ammunitions technology, for example. It is through the efforts of scientists that doctors and generals are in their privileged positions. The poor perception of scientists seems all the more unfair since the public generally does not know who today's scientific leaders are.

Worse still, there were those in Harlow market who fail to see that science is good for us. Of course, most people would consider that science plays a key role in medical or defence research, but there is more to it than that. As the Royal Society's Report on the Public Understanding of Science stated 10 years ago: "Science and technology play a major part in most aspects of our daily lives ... Our industry and thus our national prosperity depends on them."

We are thoroughly cosseted by science. It forms the basis of our economy. Scientists are people carrying out valuable and beneficial research, not a bunch of loony eccentrics tinkering away for our own enjoyment. We may be lucky enough to do jobs that we enjoy, but let us not lose sight of the fact that science is a serious and expensive pursuit necessary for the development of a nation. Progress is not cheap and research needs substantial funding to be successful.

It matters that the public learns to trust scientists. And it should be remembered that the public does not just number the shoppers of Harlow market but includes policymakers, advisers and those who shape our future.

We have progressed to the point where current advances have the potential to be frightening. In biological research, the production of genetically modified food and organisms, the use of gene therapy and the implications of mapping the human genome all need careful discussion and legislation to shape the future of our society in a considered and rational manner. How can society exploit the advances available to it if judgement about the science is undermined by a lack of trust in those carrying out the research?

One way to increase the trust in scientists might be to improve the level of scientific literacy in the population. The Royal Society's report 10 years ago concluded that a proper science education at school must provide the ultimate basis for an adequate understanding of science. Last year a report from the Department for Education offered hope. Even though science specialists are declining, combined science GCSEs are becoming more popular, and the number of students who include a science A-level with their arts subjects is increasing. Important steps have been taken to try to encourage scientific literacy in the young, but what about those who finished formal education when gene was a man's name rather than a unit of heredity?

More sensible science in the media would be a good start. The line between science fantasy as entertainment and science fact needs to be drawn more clearly. It is not possible to clone a dinosaur and mad scientists are not engaged in such pursuits. Yet it is these false beliefs that shape the public's view.

There are some excellent television and radio programmes, including Horizon and Equinox. But what about more scientific features in newspapers and magazines and more science on non-scientific programmes? There are 640,000 professional scientists and engineers in the UK, but we rarely see them in popular programmes. Why don't scientists live in Coronation Street, Albert Square or Brookside?

Scientists could help, too. We are among the best in the world, using most measurable criteria, well-respected internationally in our fields yet not by many people at home. As a nation, we have more than our fair share of Nobel prize-winners so it is time to come out of our cloisters and promote ourselves.

The message that we need to get over is that science is good for you and well looked after in the hands of responsible and trustworthy individuals. To improve our science base, to encourage people to spend their taxes on scientific research and to shape the direction of our society, we need to promote public understanding. And first we need to stamp out the perception of scientists as mad, bad and dangerous to know.