SCICOMM
A Science Voice from New Zealand

Science must not exist in isolation

by Bill Morris

The other day  I caught a broadcast of Sir Peter Gluckman’s speech at the recent Transit of Venus forum in Gisborne. Sir Peter is the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor and was a friend of the recently deceased SIr Paul Callaghan, who was instrumental in setting up the forum. In his speech, Sir Peter talked about the challenges society faces and the crucial role science plays in meeting these challenges.

A few interesting points regarding the role of science communication caught my ear so I thought I’d discuss them here….

Sir Peter Gluckman

“It’s important that we do not put science on a lofty pedestal that it does not deserve to be on. Paul (Callaghan) clearly saw that science is part of, not distinct from, society.”

As science communicators, we often encounter frictions with scientists who (perhaps not without reason) distrust the media and are therefore reluctant to involve themselves with the communication of science through public means. On occasion, scientists feel their science is lost in translation; that the concepts are too complex for the media to properly process and therefore the essence of their work will be lost.

However as Sir Peter made clear in his speech, science cannot and must not exist in isolation from the public. If it does, it has no purpose. Science exists to serve society and to help meet the challenges society faces.

“Science provides some forms of knowledge, but societal decisions are properly made on many other grounds with strong values domains. Community values, public opinion, fiscal and diplomatic considerations are critical to policy making.”

If science exists in isolation from cultural and societal values, or from economic and business interests, then it can play no role in policy making. As science communicators, our role is to ensure that unbiased, evidence-based science finds its way into any discourse over the future of humanity on this planet. It is unrealistic of science to expect absolute hegemony in this discourse, and yet a strong science voice must make itself heard. That’s where science communication comes in – by making the public aware of what science is telling us and allowing that to influence the way governments are directed to act by the public.

Sir Peter:

“It’s wrong to assume that science is about certainty, for in most of science certainty is not possible. It’s mostly about reducing uncertainty.”

“The one dimension of science we must protect at all costs is for the collection and interpretation of data to be value free”

“It’s where the boundary between what is observed and what is believed become blurred that confusion can occur.”

Debate over many issues has been heavily coloured by agendas, politics and business interests. As Sir Peter said in his speech, scientists have to be very careful not to be drawn into values debates that use science as a proxy to further agendas. Sir Peter believes the debate over climate change has been such a discussion -

“While there are really knowledge gaps, most of that debate is not really about the presence or not of climate change, rather it’s being used as a proxy for a values debate about economics and inter-generational equity.”

The media’s role is to sift through all of this static and find out what science is really telling us; then make sure as many of the public as possible are aware of it. Not an easy job, and in this respect scientists have a duty to assist genuine science communicators by being open, available and co-operative with their information. In the modern world, science, politics, economics, community values and many other factors are intertwined in policy-making, and there is no escaping this by keeping science in cloistered isolation.

Sir Peter:

“Everything we do involves trade-offs. Sustaining 40% more people on the planet, many of whom will have the right to demand higher standards of living, will inevitably require more energy consumption, more food, more water, more resource use. There’s just no way around that.”

“Science has a critical role to play in a public dialogue as we develop a national consensus on how best to manage these trade-offs.”

“All of this requires a much more scientifically aware, literate and engaged population.”

Enough said.

A recording of Sir Peter’s speech can be found here

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Science must not exist in isolation

  1. As a scientist who has recently embraced “communication of science through public means”, I can identify with the comment about scientists being reluctant to engage with the public via the media or other non-traditional means of science reporting. Although professional science communicators do a fantastic job most of the time, it is imperative that scientists also participate directly in explaining what their science is all about and why the public should be interested in it.

    Unfortunately, many of my colleagues think that it is a waste of their valuable time, is not their job, will make their colleagues jealous, and/or they lack the necessary skills or wherewithal to participate.

  2. As a scientist who has recently embraced “communication of science through public means”, I can identify with the comment about scientists being reluctant to engage with the public via the media or other non-traditional means of science reporting.

    Although professional science communicators do a fantastic job most of the time, it is imperative that scientists also participate directly in explaining what their science is all about and why the public should be interested in it. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues think that it is a waste of their valuable time, is not their job, will make their colleagues jealous, and/or they lack the necessary skills or wherewithal to participate.

    By the way, although I’m based in the U.S., I’ve spent several months in New Zealand doing scientific research with colleagues there (Landcare Research) and hope to visit again in the near future. I did a short video of that joint project, which can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNMUq0Azmck

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