Ottawa Citizen

Scientists accused of not ‘ listening’ to the public

Explain research findings in way that bolsters link to society, publisher urges


Science and society are drifting apart, says the publisher of the world’s most influentia­l science journal. If scientists want to save this marriage, Alan Leshner warns they had better stop talking down to their other halves.

A majority of Americans believe extra- sensory perception is scientific­ally valid, nearly half support astrology, while just 47 per cent agree that humans evolved from other animal species, said Mr. Leshner, executive publisher of the journal Science.

That’s a “ frightenin­g” problem in a society that relies on science and technology for innovation and a healthy economy, he said yesterday in Ottawa.

But researcher­s are wrong to believe the public doesn’t understand science, he told the annual meeting of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a national agency that funds major research infrastruc­ture. He thinks a clash of values, not ignorance, is the problem.

“ The public does get don’t like it,” he said.

The solution is for scientists to reach out and talk to people about their work, he said.

But he says too many researcher­s are talking too much, and not listening very well.

“ People need to know about science as an enterprise” — that is, how it investigat­es new ideas, what it can offer, and what it can’t offer, he said. “ And I would argue they need to know more about science as an enterprise than they need to know about specific scientific facts.

“ They need to know what is science, what isn’t science, ( and) what are the limits of science?

“ The reason for the tension has to do with what I believe to be a new dimension” in how people look at science. The public has begun to evaluate research according to how it fits their values, he believes.

If it’s about sex, if it’s psychologi­cal study that exposes dark secrets of the mind or raises questions of free will, if it deals in stem cells from embryos, or if it supports evolution, they may reject it.

“ Science is encroachin­g upon more and more issues of core humans values. And as science does that … that causes discomfort in the public and tension in the relationsh­ip.

“ So where people stand on embryonic stem cell research has nothing to do with whether that line of research will ultimately lead to the treatment of devastatin­g diseases.” People understand it may help cure disease. But many just won’t accept the use of embryos.

Want to change how society views science? he asks. Talk to the public, but with some cautions:

• There’s no point talking to people with extreme positions either for or against religious fundamenta­lism. Look instead for the undecided, the “ rational middle.”

• Send younger scientists into schools. They connect better than older guys will, he believes. Yet he says many university science students are actually held back from this kind of outreach because lab work always has to come first.

• Go out into community settings — churches, synagogues, mosques, and the pages of the newspaper — to share opinions.

• The big thing is to listen. “ It’s not that we don’t have to explain general science to the public. But it’s not going to work if that’s where we stop.

“ This is very difficult for the scientific community, which traditiona­lly has a very patronizin­g, condescend­ing view of the general public: ‘ They don’t like what we’re doing because they don’t get it.’

“ I believe the core thing we have to do is start listening … to their concerns, their priorities.”

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