LEADING ARTICLE:Science and apple pie

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The Independent Online
For anyone who wants to know why Swedish women should be avoided on winter mornings, and what the connection is between the Viking Earl Sigurd and Albert Einstein, then Kirkwall Town Hall, in the Orkneys, is the place to find out. As one of more than 3,000 events taking place across the country during National Science Week (17 to 26 March), the Nordic version of relativity theory will be the focus for discussion in Kirkwall on Wednesday evening.

This week is the second of its kind, a follow-on from last year's efforts at raising the public profile of science, engineering and technology. That the public should understand more about science has become rather like motherhood and apple pie; there are few who can be found to speak out against it.

There is a democratic imperative: our society, more than any other in history, depends upon the fruits of applied scientific research. We are surrounded by the trinkets of technology many of which, from computer databases to DNA fingerprinting, affect our lives profoundly.

Understanding science is not essential to functional literacy in our society - there are scientists who have, say, a deep understanding of Maxwell's equations for the propagation of radio waves, yet cannot programme their video recorders. But advances in genetics and information technology are ever more rapid and affect society ever more profoundly. If the people are to be trusted in the Jeffersonian manner with determining their own future, then they must be equipped with the necessary knowledge.

The Government's agenda, predictably, is economic rather than constitutional. Two years ago, it published a White Paper reorienting the thrust of British research towards "wealth creation" and it sees public understanding as a tool towards stemming the flood of children away from careers in science or engineering. By improving the image of science through events such as this week, so the reasoning goes, then industry will get the supplies of technologically trained manpower that it needs for our future economic prosperity.

It is not clear that an extended PR programme will deliver what the Government wants. Schoolchildren and students are not stupid: they are keenly aware of the prevailing ethos that all relationships are economic and that one's status in society is a function of one's income. Lawyers get a far worse press than scientists, yet it is a profession with few recruitment difficulties. If the Government is serious about increasing the attractions of a scientific life, then it has to put its (and our) money where so far, in National Science Week, it has only put its mouth.