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Set99 Friday, 12 March, 1999, 20:19 GMT
Mission to explain
Lord Sainsbury: We need better communication
This is Set99 - the National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology.

The event is a showcase for the best in British science. Thousands of workshops and lectures have been organised across the country.

It gives researchers the chance to explain precisely what they do and how their work impacts on ordinary people.

Highlights of Set99 include the annual Megalab event - a collection of mass experiments involving millions of BBC TV viewers and Daily Telegraph readers - and a visionary speech from cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking. The author of A Brief History of Time will give his view of how science and technology will develop over the next 1,000 years.

Set99 comes at a time when the emerging technologies are being subjected to intense public scrutiny.

Public concern

Concerns about the safety of genetically-modified (GM) food dominated media headlines throughout February. January saw a heated debate about human cloning.

What do you want to know?
Launching Set99, the Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said the government needed to be more in tune with the public's awareness of science and technology.

He has ordered a review of the way the government handles scientific issues of public concern and there will be consultation and research into public knowledge and attitudes about science which could be used to inform policy making.

"I'm very concerned about our lack of knowledge about what the public really think and know," he said at a breakfast party to kick off National Science Week.

"I'm determined that by this time next year we'll have an action plan to take science communication forward into the next millennium."

Public concern

John Durrant, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College, London, believes Set99 is a great opportunity to correct many of the misunderstandings that have emerged in recent weeks.

This is the sixth year of National Science Week
But he warned scientists to take people's concerns about issues such as GM food seriously.

"A lot of scientists find it hard to see why many people should take so seriously possible risks which they - scientists - see as vanishingly small or even non-existent.

"But, after 10 years of fairly unhappy experience with some other food safety issues - including BSE - you begin to see why people are doubtful about what is going on."

Durrant says dialogue of the kind fostered during Set99 is essential if scientists are to maintain public confidence in their work.

Genetic information

"It is not scientists alone who are able to say how science should be done in a society, how it should be funded or even how the results should be applied," he said.

"These are much larger questions, which need the democratic involvement of many other parts of the community.

"We should not be looking exclusively to scientists to tell us what we should do with the cascade of new genetic information coming from the research labs and the clinical laboratories in the next few years.

"We should be having a debate in which scientists join with all sorts of other people in society."

Last year, SET98 saw more than 7,000 events held across the UK and attracted more than 1.2 million visitors.

John Durrant: There must be a dialogue between scientists and the public
Matt McGarth reports: With science you can even blow up houses!
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