Why so scared of science?

David Madden

Did you know that one of the greatest Britons of our time died this week? Frederick Sanger OM died on 20th November at the grand age of 95, but his passing has barely caused a ripple in the UK media.

Who was Frederick Sanger?  He was one of only four people (and the only Briton) to have been awarded the Nobel Prize twice.  His analysis of protein sequencing in insulin, for which he won his first Nobel Prize in 1958, and subsequent work on the chemical ‘grammar’ of DNA, which led to his second Nobel in 1980, helped to lay the foundations for a scientific revolution that includes the Human Genome Sequencing Project.  This is the science that is helping Cancer Research UK, amongst others, to beat cancer.  His contribution to the sum of human knowledge and the quality of human life was immense.  Yet, his death has passed virtually unnoticed and the vast majority of Britons have no idea who he was.

Why is this the case?  Men and women like Frederick Sanger are doing incredibly important work every day.  Work that directly and indirectly improves lives and makes the world a better place to live in.  But scientists are generally ignored by the media, unless something goes wrong, when they are vilified or ridiculed.  And this has a terrible impact on public perception.  A Eurobarometer survey, conducted in 2010, found that over half of all Europeans (53%) agreed with a statement saying, ‘because of their knowledge, scientists have a power that makes them dangerous.’  The figure drops to 46% for UK respondents, but this is still a shocking statistic, suggesting that half of Europe’s populace see scientific knowledge as a dangerous thing.

Many have argued that scientists need to do more to promote a greater understanding of the work they do, in order to counter this fear or mistrust.  But, herein lies a problem.  Sir Paul Nurse, also a Nobel laureate and current President of the Royal Society, is one of the most eloquent advocates the scientific community has.  Yet, when he spoke on the Today programme about the importance of Sanger’s legacy and began to explain the nature of his research I could practically feel thousands of listeners zoning out.  Science is complex and often difficult to explain in layman’s terms.

That isn’t to say that scientists shouldn’t seek to engage more often and more effectively with the public.  In broadcast media training at PLMR we advise clients they must be able to convey their key message in no more than 12 seconds – clearly this is not easy when discussing an important scientific breakthrough, but in an age of 24 hour rolling news and 140 character ‘soundbite’ attention spans, this is the landscape they need to navigate.

But we should be looking to others to address this hugely important issue too.  There is already a lot of good work being done to encourage young people to study the key STEM subjects and it is through education that the most can be done to counter fear and lack of understanding.

However, I would also argue that our media and our politicians have a responsibility to engage with the scientific community, and in scientific debate, in a much more considered and responsible manner.  It might not be easy, and it won’t generate the same kind of headlines, but it is the right thing to do.

Maybe then, giants like Frederick Sanger will receive the credit they deserve.

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