Comment: Saturday night at the science lecture. Wow!

'The public distrust scientists as much as politicians, perceiving them as remote nerds'
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The Independent Online

Here's a shot at using three separate problems to develop a bright idea. Problem one is the public distrust of scientists. Even though science might be more accessible, via increased television coverage and obliging publishers, the problem is one of interaction. Scientists are, for the most part, perceived as about as trustworthy as politicians and, inevitably, remote and unfeeling nerds. While some people might be experiencing the "wow" factor over certain aspects of science, they are still scared rigid by GM foods and mobile phones, and the fact that no one will actually talk things through clearly with them, and steer them through the minefield of scientific method.

Here's a shot at using three separate problems to develop a bright idea. Problem one is the public distrust of scientists. Even though science might be more accessible, via increased television coverage and obliging publishers, the problem is one of interaction. Scientists are, for the most part, perceived as about as trustworthy as politicians and, inevitably, remote and unfeeling nerds. While some people might be experiencing the "wow" factor over certain aspects of science, they are still scared rigid by GM foods and mobile phones, and the fact that no one will actually talk things through clearly with them, and steer them through the minefield of scientific method.

Problem two, seemingly unrelated, is that many members of the academic work-force are, like their counterparts in higher education, demoralised. They receive relatively little money for a huge amount of conscientious work that is on the increase. Many feel they are on a treadmill until retirement. They are haunted by Hefce on the one hand sitting in on their lectures, seminars and tutorials, and awarding them points, and also, at the same time, ratcheting up the expectation of ground-breaking research as witnessed by their publication in high impact journals. What used to be a highly individual and intellectually exciting profession has now been turned into tick-box teaching and safe-science research. No wonder, then, that such academics have little time left to speak to their paymasters, the taxpayer.

Problem three - if you haven't seen already where this is leading, you will certainly do so in a few sentences - is that universities are no longer the old ivory towers. We now have a democratisation of knowledge where, instead of a mere 4 or 5 per cent of our children going to university, almost half are having some kind of higher education. And yet, although universities are becoming much more "people" places, they are still empty at weekends and most evenings. For many within the community, the universities are as remote as Brideshead.

So now, the tricky bit: the solution. What if the cavernous lecture theatres and the echoing and empty seminar rooms were turned, at weekends and evenings, into places where the general public could visit. Not only would they be using their local university but, more important, they would be getting to know their local scientists. My bright idea runs that at weekends and evenings, universities could be used for panel discussions, debates and general lectures. I know there is a market for such, because at the Royal Institution we are often welcoming capacity audiences, whether it be for showcasing young scientists, for debates on consumer issues and health, or for the more philosophically-minded to explore the far reaches of the implications of scientific discovery. Why shouldn't this type of forum happen nationwide? Each local university scientist could get to know the general public by engaging in these kinds of activities.

Of course, any academic would immediately be laughing this idea to derision: a hard-pressed university teacher/researcher is hardly likely to want to give up precious leisure time to work even harder. But what if they were given teaching remission if they engaged in teaching in this different, wider, way - or perhaps even extra pay? "And where would the money come from?" you ask with a sigh.

Well, what about the same institution, and the same department, that pays for museums: that is, Culture, Media and Sport. The cost would surely not be as great as that of mounting exhibitions. At the door, there might even be a socially-sensitive policy, so that the chattering classes forked out a few quid, allowing the unemployed, the OAPs and younger people to get in for free: I am sure no one would really complain if costs could, in this way, be kept down.

One could make the scheme more attractive by persuading Hefce to award brownie points to academics, not just for publication or teaching, but for engaging in such activity.

Surely we will only make progress as a truly scientifically-literate society, that can discuss properly the great issues that are confronting us, if we break down barriers between universities and society, between science and society. All in all, it would be a small price to pay.

* The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and Director of the Royal Institution

* education@independent.co.uk

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