Who owns science?

If scientists want the public to be interested in their work, they must learn to take criticism and give up control, says John Durant
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The Independent Online
Along the Mall in Washington DC, that broad, green triumphal avenue stretching up to Capitol Hill, lies the Smithsonian Institution, roughly the equivalent of our British Museum, National Gallery, Natural History Museum and Science Museum all rolled into one. Conventionally, museums are tranquil, even musty, places, dedicated to the uncontroversial collection of antiquarian artefacts. But the atmosphere along the Mall has become decidedly tense. For the Smithsonian has become a bitter battleground in America's culture wars. The issue is "who owns history?" and, surprisingly, science is in the firing line.

The first casualty of these conflicts was Martin Harwit, director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, who was forced to resign last month. The immediate cause of his resignation was a controversy over a proposed exhibition on the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima 50 years ago. Initially, war veterans' groups complained about the allegedly pro-Japanese script for the exhibition, and, in response to a swelling chorus of protest, the museum first modified the script and then cancelled the exhibition altogether. Even this, however, was not enough to satisfy the critics. Following a critical editorial in the Washington Post, 81 members of Congress called for Harwit's resignation; and on 3 May he duly complied.

As if this were not bad enough, across the Mall from the National Air and Space Museum a disconcertingly similar controversy has been going on for almost a year. Last spring, the National Museum of American History opened a huge exhibition entitled "Science in American Life". The exhibition, sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS), features a combination of interactive science (including an extremely imaginative cafe-style hands-on science centre) and historical exhibits charting the role of science in American society since 1876. Once again, it is the historical content of the exhibition that has proved controversial.

While the exhibition was still being developed, representatives of the ACS expressed reservations about the emphasis being given to the technological and wider social impacts of science. A few weeks after it opened, the head of public relations at the American Physical Society, Robert L Park, extended the debate into the ether by publishing an openly hostile review in a weekly electronic newsletter called What's New.

"The focus is not on discovery," he wrote, "but on the public's changing view of science - a view that is certain to worsen as a result of the exhibit ... It's all there: mushroom clouds, a family bomb shelter from the Sixties, DDT and CFCs. As you leave the exhibit, there is a sign warning visitors to 'Stop and think! Is gene therapy safe?' "

Park's hostile critique sparked an open debate that continues to run, not just on the electronic bulletin boards (where new comments are still being made daily) but also in the scientific journals, in the press, and at a series of meetings with sponsors, scientists and others about the exhibition, whose contents the National Museum of American History has been obliged to renegotiate.

It is not yet clear how much the museum may be willing to concede by way of changes, or whether the debate will become as bitter and as polarised as that surrounding the Enola Gay, but at this point I would be surprised if the museum staff directly involved in the exhibition are confident of the final outcome.

At one level, these parallel controversies are about America's wish to define itself and its place in the world in the post-Cold War era. As one of the curators of "Science in American Life" somewhat ruefully commented when I visited the exhibition recently: "This debate has taught me that Americans expect the Smithsonian to hold up to them an acceptable picture of themselves." With the recent change of political complexion in the US Congress, liberal and conservative forms of political correctness have come into open conflict with one another, to the point where today it would appear to require bravery or even sheer bravado to contemplate mounting an exhibition in the US on any significant historical or cultural topics.

But there are other, deeper issues at stake here. For the debates about Enola Gay and "Science in American Life" are also about who owns history; that is, about just who is entitled to interpret the development of modern science to the public. In both cases, the efforts of professional historians and exhibitors have met with hostility from scientists and scientific publicists, who object not only to what they see as negative and damaging images of science but also to what they appear to regard as illicit trespassing on scientific territory by non-scientific (and therefore incompetent) commentators. It is almost as if some scientists were seeking to restrict public comment upon their subject to themselves and their professional colleagues alone.

Scientists have complained loudly in recent years that they and their subjects are too often ignored by mainstream culture, and have made a bid for greater visibility under the banner of public understanding of science. There are signs that they have had a certain amount of success. For example, there has been a boom in popular science on radio and TV, in books and magazines and in quality newspapers. It is almost as if broadcasters, publishers and editors had suddenly discovered that science sells.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether scientists who sign up for the public understanding of science are always aware of the implications of what they are doing. While science stays inside the laboratory, it is directed and managed by scientists and their (generally sympathetic) paymasters; but once it moves out into popular culture, it is no longer under their (or, for that matter, anyone else's) complete control. Scientists who want their work to be part of mainstream culture must accommodate themselves and their discipline to a set of rules very different from those that operate within their learned societies and journals. This, as the recent events at the Smithsonian reveal, can be difficult.

There is a deep irony about some scientists' simultaneous desire for a greater presence within mainstream culture and their dissatisfaction with some of the more striking ways in which science has come to be represented in that culture. Part of the price that science must pay for a more central place within culture is a willingness to tolerate comment and criticism from far outside the scientific community. In fact, this is not as high a price as it seems; for comment and criticism will occur anyway. The real choice to be made by the scientific community is whether it will stand aloof from the debate (which means leaving the field to others), or whether it will join in so as to ensure that scientific voices are heard alongside others.

In the UK, we are at a crucial stage in the development of a more publicly and culturally visible science. Great strides have been made, but some of the same tensions that are evident across the Atlantic are also present here. Science is too important be left out of our culture; but, by the same token, culture is too important to be left in the hands of scientists alone. Culture is the domain of judgement, of commentary and of criticism. It would be disastrous if the existence of different judgements, commentaries and criticisms about matters scientific were to lead scientists to withdraw from that wider discourse among men and women of good faith, without which we shall never succeed in unifying CP Snow's "two cultures".

Dr John Durant is professor of public understanding of science at Imperial College, London and assistant director of the Science Museum.