Numerous initiatives have been set up to improve communications with the public. But is enough of this effort aimed towards young people?
Although we have come a long way from the image of scientists as recluses, too busy with their work to acknowledge the outside world, there is still a danger of becoming complacent and forgetting that part of the job of a scientist is to communicate their results to a wider audience — namely the public. One long-term consequence of not doing this could be a severe lack of people to step into our shoes. It's only by keeping the public informed about the excitement of science that we can guarantee to spark interest in young people — the next generation of scientists. In recent years, enormous efforts have been made to do this on both sides of the Atlantic, although Europe is perhaps still lagging behind the US.
In the US, the effort to interest the public, and particularly children, is clear when you look at the homepage for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (http://www.hhmi.org), as just one example. On the main page are prominent links to 'Ask a Scientist' and 'Cool Science for Curious Kids' — a link that "invites curious kids to explore biology" and includes experiments that can be done at home. The prominence of this link on the website reflects the importance given to educating young people. Similarly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a media programme that includes 'Science Update' — winner of a communication award last year for a site which, among other things, provides daily lectures on an area of research, explained in layperson's terms. But the US is not alone in its efforts. For several years now, a public science day or week has been celebrated in the US, the UK, around Europe and in other countries, including Israel and India. These events have encouraged scientists to open their doors to the public and allowed families to come and experience research at first hand. It is clear that, given the opportunity, young people are keen to find out what scientists do.
But are these isolated events enough? Perhaps not, and this may have been a consideration in the launch of UK Science Year this September (http://www.scienceyear.com) which aims to raise awareness among the public and schoolchildren, particularly the 10–19 year olds. This initiative is funded primarily by the government's Department for Education and Skills, with input from other organizations including the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In the coming year, science 'ambassadors' will be sent out into schools, with the prime aim of inspiring pupils with accounts of their research and “raising awareness of the wide and wonderful world of subjects and careers that are underpinned by science and technology”. Other year-round activities will include science clubs, group experiments, exhibitions and a 'search for a science star' competition — an effort to find a scientific role model for children. Similar educational initiatives have also begun in other countries such as Portugal and Australia.
The bottom line, it seems, is that far from being complacent, scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are building on already developing links with society and educational bodies. So we can perhaps feel more confident that young people will be able to make informed choices about issues that affect their everyday lives, and will begin to view scientists in a less sceptical light. By 'catching them early', we can hope that the next generation's attitude towards research and science-based careers will be one of enthusiasm and curiosity.