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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK


Harsh message for scientists

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Scientists should not assume that the public understands them or will be appreciative of their work if they do not put more effort into explaining the purpose of their research.

This is the uncomfortable message delivered to scientists at Britain's prestigious Royal Society by Professor Robert Worcester, chairman of the opinion research organisation Mori.

Professor Worcester says scientists are not as well regarded as they like to think they are, and he says the media should also be better at informing and explaining scientific developments.

The Mori chairman has outlined a series of conclusions about the public's attitude to science, the standing of scientists and the way science is presented in the media. The conclusions are based on a government-commissioned survey.

Genetically-modified food

The public was asked to name an area of scientific research. Eleven per cent mentioned the search for better medicines and treatments. But not far behind was genetically-modified (GM) food and space exploration.

Only 6% of those questioned mentioned general medical research and only 5% mentioned cloning and Dolly the sheep. Eight per cent said the Internet, but hardly anyone mentioned new telephones, TVs or other developing technologies.

Unsurprisingly, the public most values scientific developments that are aimed at improving healthcare.

Asked about the splitting of the atom, five times as many people considered it was a bad development for society as thought it was a good thing.

Only 1% of people questioned said that GM food was beneficial; 2% believed that cloning and Dolly were good. On the other hand, 45% of those questioned said GM food was bad for society and 57% said cloning and Dolly were not beneficial.

Need to inform

These results may make depressing reading for researchers, but Professor Worcester says the survey shows the public will accept new developments and technologies if they have experience of them and if they find them useful. If they are not explained, they are regarded as remote and probably harmful.

He believes the public may be ignorant of the background information needed to put some scientific developments into context.

He adds that public understanding is not helped by the media's habit of scare-mongering and inflating the importance of some scientists without giving a balanced view of science in general.

To the question "do you trust scientists?" the public put them on a par with policemen, but well behind doctors and teachers. Sixty-three percent said they trusted scientists; 22% said they did not. Only 15% said they trusted journalists; 76% said they did not.

The broad conclusion, says Professor Worcester, is that, in the 21st Century, it will no longer be acceptable for scientists to have the good of mankind at heart. They must also be seen to have the good of mankind at heart.

If scientists do not heed the public's feelings then they run the risk of public scepticism at best, cynicism and possibly mistrust and suspicion at worst.

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