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July 04, 2010

Science vs The People

GM food, climate change, nanotechnology, evolution. Scientists, naturally, are supportive of research, even though they might be in two minds over the actual subject, or question its outcomes. But often the public does not see it that way.

With issues like embyonic stem cell research it is possible to see where the anger come from. Men in lab coats experimenting on unborn babies? A horrible vision. But what about climate change and evolution? Surely these topics should not create as much controversy as they do? Why does the average Joe on the street not understand that the scientific evidence for both is overwhelming?

At th Euroscience Open Forum in Turin researchers are trying to find some answers to these questions. Nearly two hundred scientists flocked to a talk by Alan Leshner, the president of the American Associatin of Science, to discuss how to disseminate research results to the masses. And in his talk Leshner underlined the inconvenient truth: scientific values do not necessarily match the values of the people.

"The problem does not lie in the understanding. People understand science, they just don't like it," Leshner says. "If the scientific promise and human values conflict, the values usually win."

He urged researchers to be honest about science, to admit that they cannot, and must not, predict everything, and that they too do make mistakes. Attendants at the forum agreed that changes in terminology, finding a new term for embryonic stem cell research and using "man-made global warming" rather than "climate change" could help shift the public attitude.

Engaging with the public, it turned out, is one of the few fields where Europe is ahead of the United States. Leshner complimented on the European way of dealing with the public, to make scientists engage in open, honest conversation and offer outlooks, solutions and, where possible, alternatives rather than dishing out facts and then returning to their ivory tower.

Robert Schenkel, the director of the Joint Research Centre, used April's volcanic ash cloud crisis as an example. Rather than making ad-hoc predictions or refusing to comment, Europe's researchers went out there and admitted they had no clue, but also made it clear they would do everything they could to develop a plan. The result: The public's reaction was one of patience and compliance with flight restrictions. The incident was chaotic and stressful, but the backlash against those who set the rules was surprisingly small.

From the high turnout of visitors to ESOF's public events and the mutlitude of information and do-it-yourself science stands at its exhibition it is clear that Europeans are in ever more need to know about science. Indeed, the latest Eurobarometer survey has shown that nearly 80 per cent of Europeans are interested in research, but it also paints a picture of an increasing critical attitude among the public. It is time for scientists to quell the public's hunger for information and win the support of those they ultimately do their research for. Because in the end, it's the public who vote those into power who decide the next spending cuts.

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