Harold Kroto: Science is best explained by scientists

From the Michael Faraday Award lecture given by the Nobel chemistry prize winner, at the Royal Society in London
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The Independent Online

A few weeks after appearing on a radio programme – perhaps it was Melvyn Bragg's Start the Week – I was talking to a teacher, who said she had heard me on the programme. I asked her what I had said, for I had forgotten. She said that what had made her prick up her ears was my comment that I would much rather listen to Harold Pinter himself talk about his writing, than someone else talking about it, and that I pointed out that when it comes to an important scientific advance we rarely hear the scientist involved. In general, science is described by a media medium who cannot understand the advance as well as the scientist who made it.

A recent broadcast debate on a major scientific/technical advance over which there is significant public concern was a most interesting example of the way that important science is often handled by TV. The moderator was a well-known newsreader, not a scientist, and I could not help wondering whether the general public would tolerate a debate on Bach or the Rolling Stones moderated by someone who was tone-deaf or a discussion on the paintings of Howard Hodgkin or Mark Rothko by someone who was colour blind.

The roster also included one of the most vocal protagonists in the field, paired off against one of the most vocal antagonists. A Greenpeace representative who was not a scientist, and someone from Christian Aid (also not a scientist, apparently there to represent the Third World) were also present. There was also a scientist from a multinational with significant interests in the subject, as well as a journalist who, though not a scientist, felt positive about the benefits.

It does not take much to realise that this more-or-less "politically correct", superficially balanced consortium had no chance whatsoever of developing a worthwhile discussion or a useful perspective on complex matters.

Debates must treat complex scientific issues with careful, measured argument if they are to develop a rational overview of the pros and cons. The public has a right to expect this from national TV. This debate could achieve very little of real value as those who understood the subject were not sufficiently disinterested and the rest, who might or might not have been disinterested, were not scientifically qualified. The ensuing, at times heated, altercations did nothing for our understanding of the science involved and even less for the general reputation of the scientific profession.

It is now vital that the public educational promise of TV broadcasting – the most powerful communications technology ever developed – be made a priority. It is crucial that the public has access to the best information possible on important matters at the science-society interface. The programme-making philosophies must not just involve entertainment in order to engage the public, but must not shy away from difficulties when serious issues are at stake. The latter remit can only be achieved by involving the best scientists who are also good communicators. Advertising arguments must not interfere with educational priorities. Certainly, confrontational debate, often considered "good television", is absolutely inimical to the development of scientific understanding and good communication.

A small, but I feel important, piece of the jigsaw puzzle which we in the Vega Science Trust have been working towards has been the creation of TV and internet platforms that enable scientists to communicate directly with whomsoever they wish, on whatever topics they deem important and possess expertise.

We try to cover a broad spectrum from exciting science to issues of significant concern at the science/society interface. The internet has the promises to ignite a chain reaction of educational scientific initiatives in which scientists can create a network with no boundaries and a common language: the language of science.