Staff urged to defend truth
Science teachers should be at the forefront of defending controversial technologies such as nuclear power, genetically-modified food and experiments on animals, the Association for Science Education conference was told.
Professor Robert Winston, the fertility expert and presenter of TV's Child Of Our Time said that they had the biggest role in overcoming the crisis in the public understanding of science.
Public fears over nuclear power, GM crops, animal testing, stem cell research, and the MMR vaccine were unjustified and fuelled by an ignorance of science, he told the conference at Leeds university.
This ignorance meant that phenomena such as global warming or the epidemic of foot and mouth disease were either ignored or dealt with incompetently.
"If we are going to change society, the science education of our children is incredibly important," he said. There was a strong case for printing a label on every medicine saying that it would not have existed without animal research."
Professor Winston said teachers would have to be careful. "They may be accused of having an axe to grind," he said. "But if people say that GM foods harm human health, schools are justified in looking at the evidence.
And the evidence is pretty much non-existent."
He said that scientists had lost public trust over GM foods by failing to acknowledge commercialisation and vested interests.
And he attacked Prince Charles, an outspoken critic of GM crops, for having his own vested interest in the form of his Duchy Originals brand of organic food. "Of all the organisms in the world, he's probably one of the most genetically modified," he said.
However, Professor Winston took issue with Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor for the public understanding of science, over his criticism of religion encroaching on the science curriculum.
He said he had refused to sign a petition condemning the promotion of creationism in schools such as Emmanuel college, Gateshead. "I'm not sure this is the right way for scientists to approach those subjects, by creating a conflict where there need not be one."
* Professor Winston also launched a new Salters-Nuffield A-level course in biology, which reorganises the curriculum using real-life themes such as forensic science or lifestyle and health.