Kathy Sykes: We need to see the human side of scientists and their role in society

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The Independent Online

Science at school can be turgid and desperately unappealing. It was for me at first: a huge body of difficult facts to be memorised. Cold, faceless, soulless - divorced from my life and from the exciting science in the media. Teachers, too, complain about the lack of opportunity they have to teach about the ethical dimension or to encourage their pupils to be creative.

What is heartbreaking is that badly misrepresents science, how scientists work and what it is like. It is madness that we have had a school science curriculum for so long that does not get across what science is really about and turns so many people off. The real story often turns people on.

Science is not just about the known; it is about the unknown and the uncertain. It is about understanding ideas and models that try to explain how our world works and coming up with ideas that offer more elegant models. Scientists rarely get to the "truth", we just hope to get closer to it which means you have to hold "truth" lightly. You have to be creative in coming up with new models and be prepared to challenge existing ideas.

We need to see the human side of scientists better. Many scientists are passionate about their work. Their personalities and beliefs have a big impact on science and how they work. Different scientists work in different ways, and there are many kinds of approach. To teach that it is all inexorable and completely objective is nonsense.

So, the science curriculum should convey the real natures of science, its ways of working and its lack of certainty. It should show how politics, society and the media influence science and vice versa. It should use stories that show the importance of people, personalities and passion in science, and the crucial role of creativity. Students should experience the thrill of doing useful, relevant science through projects and fieldwork on their own and as part of a team.

Finally, school science should equip people with skills they need to tackle ethical issues involving science, such as the MMR debate. People need to be able to find out information, to assess different points of view. They need to see their way through some tricky ethical debates to make wiser decisions. And scientists similarly need to be equipped to discuss ethical issues around their work in a world where it is no longer acceptable for them to say "deciding how the science is used is not my business".

I welcome the new AS-level. Teaching history, ethics and philosophy of science sounds extremely promising. I really hope it delivers. But we have to tackle this earlier in school, before people have been so bored by a curriculum and assessment regime that disguises the delights of science that they decide to ditch the subject.

The writer is professor of public engagement at the Science and Engineering Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Bristol