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Geneticist denies that science is enemy of culture: The British Association for the Advancement of Science opens its annual meeting today. Susan Watts spoke to the association's president

ONE OF Britain's leading geneticists has dismissed as 'nonsense' what she believes is a media fascination with attacking science as an irrelevant, culturally diminishing pastime.

Anne McLaren, of Cambridge University, was fiercely critical of such anti-science dogma in the run-up to Britain's largest annual science meeting, beginning today in Loughborough.

Dr McLaren is president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The association is hosting this week's meeting - a public celebration of science, which this year takes as its title 'Science in the World Around Us'.

She rubbished the view that scientific pursuit is destroying our culture. 'It's a lot of nonsense. You don't destroy the mystery of a rainbow by understanding the light processes that form it.'

Dr McLaren, who works at the Wellcome/Cancer Research Campaign Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology, said scientific research made life and the natural world more interesting. Astronomy was far more fascinating today than it was when it consisted only of looking directly at the stars.

'Black holes and comets crashing into planets make front-page news these days. Science has not destroyed people's interest in the stars, it has accentuated it. Every question you ask raises more questions.'

She looked forward to a time when people would study science at university because they found it interesting, not just because they wanted to pursue a career in the subject. Dr McLaren welcomes public criticism of the way science is carried out, and in some cases of the people involved. She said the BBC's recent series Heretics on scientists as mavericks had done little to damage the image of science. 'If one said one didn't want such a debate, that would only reinforce the idea that scientists' minds are closed.'

This week's meeting has attracted hundreds of the nation's leading scientists and engineers, from academia and industry. Between 5,000 and 6,000 young people have also registered for the youth section of the event.

The main meeting covers subjects ranging from drugs in sport to market forces in the NHS.

Rules and rituals in science education are destroying children's ability to understand how best to tackle problems, according to tests on primary and secondary school pupils.

The results, published today, indicate that children are being taught to follow rigid procedures in practical science experiments, rather than to understand the scientific method that lies behind them, according to Richard Gott, of the University of Durham and Robin Millar, of the University of York.

Their research concludes that pupils risk missing the chance to develop the ideas necessary to criticise and debate science and technology related issues.