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December 17, 2010

Walter Bodmer breaks his silence

It is 25 years since cancer geneticist Walter Bodmer wrote his landmark report Public Understanding of Science. In a rare interview from the US he tells Ehsan Masood that much of its content has been misinterpreted.

Did the Royal Society commission Public Understanding of Science because of worries that the government was cutting funding in a recession?

I don’t agree with that at all. I think it’s quite wrong.

 But would you agree that then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was no friend of scientists?

On the contrary, she was extremely supportive. I met her several times—she would come to meetings of the British Association [for the Advancement of Science]. She would also host lunches at Number 10 with scientists, organised by her chief scientist, Robin Nicholson. I suspect that the Royal Society were not quite so negative about her as my Oxford colleagues [Oxford denied Thatcher a doctorate in January, 1985].

Thatcher did cut the science budget…

It was a very tight time—like now. I don’t think she hit science more than anything else. It’s a total myth that she was antagonistic.

 So what really was the motivation behind Public Understanding of Science?

The Royal Society has a long-standing interest in science education. The physicist Roger Blin-Stoyle chaired a committee on science education that reported in November 1982. [It recommended] the society set up a small working group to find ways to enhance public understanding of science. Society president Andrew Huxley asked me to become the group’s chairman.

But would you accept that at the time, for the Royal Society, greater public support for science in recession would have been a positive outcome?

I couldn’t speak for the Royal Society. But this idea that you can boost funding for science by greater public understanding is something that our committee never considered. It has been entirely constructed by others, afterwards. We didn’t believe that, if people understood science better, they would necessarily support it.

What is your report’s greatest legacy?

It changed attitudes within the Royal Society [and] opened the way for so many initiatives: much more science in the media, National Science Week, prizes for science communication and undergraduate and postgraduate courses at universities. Perhaps most important of all was that scientists were encouraged to go out and communicate, which few did before our report…The effects of our report exceeded our expectations.

In 2000, the House of Lords said in a report that “public understanding” of science needed to be replaced with public “engagement”. That sounds like a criticism.

That report was very useful. But I do think some of the criticisms were unwarranted. I have always recognised that public engagement is important—remember that I chaired the National Radiological Protection Board for more than four years and set up an inquiry into the safety of mobile phones. But for the public to engage it’s important to have some knowledge, some understanding. Take science cafés, for example. A speaker starts with talking about the science and later engages in dialogue with an audience. Understanding and engagement are not mutually exclusive.

Is trust in scientists is falling?

The fall in trust affects those scientists who are attached to companies, or to government—not independent, largely university-based scientists. That is the lesson of the [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] crisis and the crisis in [genetically modified] foods.

Perhaps the call for public engagement is a recognition that young people are less likely to be deferential to authority?

You can’t generalise. Forty per cent go to university. Around half will study science to some extent. They are not shy and they do use the web. I spent nine years as head of an Oxford college and I didn’t see students who didn’t listen to their teachers. I did see bright kids eager to learn.

 Is more public understanding of science likely to make people less religious?

This is a good question to explore. I think professional biologists may be less likely to have belief [than] physicists—perhaps partly because you can explain biological phenomena without having to understand the ultimate basis of matter in the way that physicists try to.

So was Richard Dawkins a good choice as the UK’s first professor in the public understanding of science?

Yes. He takes a different approach to public understanding and public engagement than I do. I am not religious but I don’t believe that you achieve much with strident attacks on religion. But Richard has done many useful things, especially with his books.

[First published in 19 December 2010 issue of Research Fortnight]

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