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Getting the message across

Few dispute the need for greater public understanding of science. But efforts must include a commitment to genuine two-way interaction and greater transparency

Perhaps one of the least controversial parts of the two documents which delegates to the World Conference on Science will be asked to approve on Thursday are those which deal with the need to improve communication about science. No one would dispute that in a knowledge based economy, the increased public understanding of science is highly desirable. This is true both from the point of view in allowing all members of the community to benefit from knowledge and its applications, and also in reducing the 'democratic deficit' that inevitably arises when too many decisions are left in the hands of technical experts and advisers.

But there are limits to the consensus, too. Some, as keynote speaker John Durrant pointed out yesterday, still tend to think of the public communication of science as operating on a conveyor-belt principle, with scientists placing the 'facts' on one end, and expecting to see them delivered intact to an expectant public at the other. Others rightly point out that this somewhat out-dated and elitist approach fails to take account of the fact that the most effective communication is a two-way process, with both sides providing their own insights and acknowledging their own agendas.

Take, for example, the current issue of genetically modified crops. It is a brave - or perhaps foolhardy - politician who continues to argue that public concern about such crops would quickly disappear if governments were to introduce nationwide courses on agricultural genetics. For a lack of deep understanding of the biological principles at stake is as much a symptom as a cause of the current distrust of science.

Rebuilding this trust is therefore not merely a case of developing more effective ways of communicating science to the public. Admittedly, this is an essential step. Indeed, one of the hoped-for outcomes of the current conference is strong endorsement of plans to establish an International Centre for Science Communication at the Science Museum in London. And one of the key roles of such a centre would be to provide a forum in which science journalists and communictors from developing countries could both hone and share their skills.

But the ultimate goal must be much broader than this: namely to stimulate the growth of cultures that are mature enough to be simultaneously supportive and critical of the science on which their future depends. A key step in that direction is increased transparency in all spheres of decision-making; the role of responsible communicators must include a commitment to that goal, not just to becoming better loaders of the conveyor belt.

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