Science has to rise above the test-tube

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Children need to be educated about the big issues of ethics and morality, say Donald Gray and Laura Colucci-Gray

eaders of The Times Higher Education Supplement (December 12) will have read about the conflict that arose in the scientific community over remarks made by Sir Robert Winston. He was "lambasted" by the academic establishment in response to his suggestion that science should recognise and abide by public opinion, even if that opinion went counter to scientific evidence (Sir Robert's reply to his critics appeared on January 2).

Juxtaposed next to the article was another about the debate to be screened the following Monday on Channel 5 on the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and its suggested links with autism. While many people, particularly parents of young children, will have found themselves drawn into the television drama-documentary about the doctor and one of the mothers of an autistic child, many scientists criticised it as "dangerous" and the debate that was to follow as a cross between "Kilroy and Jerry Springer" In this case key figures in science communication suggested that scientists and doctors who had backed out of a potentially hostile television debate about the MMR vaccine had wasted an important opportunity to put forward their side.

What is clear from these events is that there are serious issues of communication difficulties and mistrust between the scientific community and the public, compounded by an increasing lack of consensus among scientists themselves. While the public would have at one time looked to the scientists for definitive answers and explanations, what they often now perceive is confusion and uncertainty.

Are we perhaps looking for answers in the wrong place? While long-established approaches to science have reaped immense rewards for health and quality of life for most of society, the realms of science now being explored open new, unexpected and uncertain consequences for which the traditional approaches are perhaps not sufficient. The consequences can be potentially catastrophic and, after many visible scares, the public are noticeably wary of scientific claims.

It is often the case that when scientists are criticised in relation to a contentious socio-scientific issue, such as genetically modified crops, those doing the criticising are often accused of being anti-science. The scientific community under attack lumps all criticism into a large anti-science basket, in which only a small group is made of truly anti-science protesters, akin to the pre-technological Luddites. In fact, many critics of such scientific developments come from within the extended scientific community itself.

But these debates are often centred around matters of scientific detail which cut off the public and, more dramatically, fail to "reach the point".

It is too often forgotten that much scientific research is set within a complex dynamic of social, cultural and economic factors and, while the problems discussed do have a scientific dimension, they are not exclusively scientific. In science education at all levels, from primary through to higher education, this reality of science is largely ignored.

As a contributor to the Unesco World Conference on Science in 2000 noted, school science is usually designed for producing future scientists, often lacks a socio-cultural and economic dimension, and is exam oriented. Such education leaves little room for learning about, and through, critical discussion. More important, it does not provide for those who won't be following an academic path but who will certainly have to deal with science intruding into their everyday lives.

School science also ignores the fact that scientists will, more and more, have to consider the social, cultural and economic impact of their work in a way that they have not had to do before. We can also say that school science operates within a kind of time warp. The Commons report on science education 14-19 (2002) concluded from the evidence submitted to it by teachers that "most science taught at ages 14-16 has remained largely unchanged for decades". The report cites David Moore of the Association for Science Education who stated that "we need to provide opportunities where (students) can discuss what is going on in today's science rather than the science of 50 or 100 years ago".

It is generally acknowledged that current science education is presented in such a way that it delivers the idea that science is a powerful tool for explaining and representing reality, its main questions being whathow and howwhy. This is clearly not enough. Stepping out of the narrow confines of facts and numbers (which never seem to be enough), it looks as though more progress would be achieved by changing the nature of the questions. These would be aimed at allowing people, scientists and public at large, to find alternatives on which to build consensus. Think, for example, how the focus of your attention and your attitude changes when moving from asking why or how to what if?

What is at issue, and what is being increasingly acknowledged, is the need for dialogue and discussion both between scientists and the public, and among scientists themselves, in an open and transparent way. However, this raises the point: how does a public that has been traditionally excluded from such discussion become empowered to engage confidently in such dialogue? And how does a scientific community which feels increasingly subjected to hostility and alienation from the public come to trust in a public which it feels is hostile and prone to the biased influence of the media?

While there are interesting innovations such as the "citizens' conference" on stem cell research in Germany, we are led to the conclusion that, while it may not be the only way, schools play an important role in developing the knowledge and competences required to be able to engage effectively in socio-scientific discussion. Regrettably, however, it seems that they are not quite in a position to do that yet.

Dr Donald Gray is a senior lecturer in the department of mathematics, science and technological education at Strathclyde University. Laura Colucci-Gray is a contributor to the science education research group in Turin University and is studying full-time for a PhD in science education with the Open University.

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