talking about science

Why is it important for people (scientists, journalists, science communicators, every woman & her dog) to talk about science? Does it really matter if NZ primary school students think science isn’t fun, if secondary students seem to be showing less interest in the sciences, or if fewer & fewer students major in physics at university? As science writer Natalie Angier says (& I hasten to add that she’s playing devil’s advocate here!)

Does it matter if the great majority of people know little or nothing about science or the scientific mindset? If the average Joe or Sophie doesn’t know the name of the closest star (the sun), or whether tomatoes have genes (they do), or why your hand can’t go through a tabletop (because the electrons in each repel each other), what difference does it make?

I’d be the first to admit that scientists aren’t always terribly good at communicating about their science – Marcus has some comments on this. But we do think it’s important for people to think about science, & talk about science, for all sorts of reasons. Angier has a look at some of these in her recent book, The canon: a whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science.

The first is one I’ve discussed at conferences on more than one occasion: science has a lot to say about many of the key issues facing humanity today. Think global climate change, embryonic stem cell research, ‘bird flu’ & other potential pandemics, shortages of clean water for drinking. So doesn’t it make sense to argue for having a scientifically-literate population?

And maybe, as a spinoff, that population will be less likely to be taken in by some of the pseudoscientific flim-flam that’s all too common these days? (Although – then I’d have less to blog about!)

Which is all true – up to a point. For many of those ‘big’ items, it’s probably as important to have an ethically-informed discussion as it is to have a scientifically-informed one. Take embryonic stem cells, for example – science can tell you what’s involved, & what the potential benefits are in terms of, say, health outcomes. But whether society decides this is a Good Thing or not is down to ethics.

What about the importance of science & technology to current & future prosperity? There’s a good case to be made for better funding of what you could call ‘blue-skies’ research – the sort of research that isn’t focused on a particular end-goal but simply attemtps to answer the question: I wonder what would happen if…? The sort of research that underpins many of the scientific & technological innovations that we now take for granted. Yes, that’s a political decision, but those political decisions do to some degree reflect the will of the electorate (well, I’d like to think they do!). So if people think that basic science is valuable, maybe science & technology will get more positive attention? (And funding!) And maybe more students will see science as a worthwhile, valuable (& valued) career?

And this is important. We really do need more scientists, in a whole range of fields. And yet that demand doesn’t seem to be matched by interest on the part of students. For example, there’s a newspaper report today expressing alarm at the drop in the number of students studying agriculture (& of teachers teaching it, & schools offering the subject). This in a country where agriculture still underpins our economic prosperity. But students are voting with their feet, & they’re not walking the agriculture path.

Why not? Maybe part of it is that, like those primary students, they don’t see science as fun. OK, the rather geeky image of science probably comes into it. And there may well be a perception that other jobs bring in more money or better job security. But you also have to enjoy what you do. Yes, from time to time there’s repetitiveness (collating the data from another lab trial, planting out another batch of seedlings…) & sheer hard work – but there’s so much to enjoy, & to be passionate about. There’s always new things to find out, & to fit within the scaffold of what we already know. There’s the joy & the excitement of discovery. There’s the sheer fun of it all.

And maybe that’s what we should be talking about. Not just the pragmatic stuff, but the fun!!

Natalie Angier (2007) The canon: a whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science. Scribe

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