I wandered along to the Cambridge Skeptics’ event The Public Understanding of Science where the lovely Dr Alice Bell was holding court at an evening in the Maypole pub that was standing room only. An excellent event not for the faint hearted. The discussion that took place was all the more poignant with BBC Newsnight covering the hotly-debated issue of the provision of abortion services.
The end of my ‘formal’ scientific education came with my GCSEs. I thought science was great. I still do. The problem at the time for me was the limited number and range of A-levels combined with shockingly bad careers advice. These factors plus an appalling lack of courage at the time on my part led to decisions not to keep up with languages and sciences – things that (with varying degrees of success) I have been trying to redress post-full-time education.
It was just over a year ago that I was introduced to the delightful Sarah Castor-Perry who, at the time was working for the Naked Scientists. The piece of work that caught my imagination was that of the chocolate teapot – and the saying that something is as useful as. (i.e. Not very). But what the Naked Scientists do (amongst other things) is they make scientific experiments to turn some of these sayings and idioms on their head; they made a chocolate teapot and tested how useful it would be. Accordingly, they found out how thick the chocolate that makes a chocolate teapot needed to be in order for it to be useful – i.e. not melt AND make a nice cuppa!
The debate that Dr Alice Bell hosted this evening opened up the issue of the public understanding of science – and made me realise that it is far more complicated than getting more school children to do science post-16, getting more scientists into politics and public administration and getting the media to feature far more science in the news rather than featuring what celebrity forgot to put on which item of clothing yesterday morning.
My question for Alice was about how we can encourage scientists to increase their participation in politics, policy-making and public administration. Alice pointed out that in terms of public sector officials, there is a sizeable presence of people with science degrees across the various professions within that sector. However, there is an issue with scientists within elected public office – something that was covered by Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert in September 2010.
I follow a number of scientists and science journalists through Puffles’ twitter feed. One of the things that I have found that has increased my understanding of science has been using social media to interact with people who have specialist interests or an expertise in an area that, for example happens to be newsworthy or in the public eye that day. One of the things I’ll be observing over the next few years is how people in science will be using social media to improve not just the public’s understanding of science, but also of politicians’ understanding of science. This, as Alice told me is just as important as trying to get scientists into politics.