Gill Watson, executive director of the Vega Trust, argues that the best communicators of science are... scientists.
Have you ever thought about the consequences of mis-communicating science? Well there is one small organisation trying to communicate science through those who know best: the scientists. The Vega Science Trust was established in 1994 by collaboration between a chemist with a commitment to conveying science and a BBC education producer with the job of providing good science television. This fortuitous union led to the setting up of a charity whose aim it was to promote science via the medium of television. Trustees were invited from both science and the media but there was one proviso that was quite different from the majority of production organisations in 1994, and that was that the science must take priority in the production. The scientist, although not considered an expert in producing television programmes, was considered by the Trust to be an expert in his/her area of science and, very often against the media's perception, an excellent communicator. After all, most scientists have been perfecting the communication of their particular area of science for the majority of their working lives to their colleagues. Many have put a tremendous amount of personal time and effort into finding ways to successfully communicate science to non-scientists, students and children.
In 1998, Vega got a lucky break from the Office of Science and Technology in that it received a modest grant for core funding for three years to help improve the links between scientists and television broadcasters. The principal aim was to get more science on television, and to this aim we reported our experiences to the then minister for science, Lord Sainsbury. Vega has now produced 54 programmes supported via donations. Many of these (30) have been broadcast on BBC2 but we still struggle to find broadcasting outlets and are now turning to the internet which provides a haven for those wanting to publish their work for public access.
As a non-scientist I have asked myself whether I should promote science and scientists, and the answer, for me, lies in the way in which I see the work of scientists in general as being open for debate. Every piece of work must be backed up by evidence that is published and open for peer review.
Most scientists I know question their own work from many points of view, that is, for scientific accuracy and where it applies, whether it is ethically right to carry out the work, and they certainly question the work of other scientists. Discussion is an accepted part of a scientist's work and yet despite all the negative criticism of scientific discoveries and the uses to which they are put (invariably not by scientists), we hear very little public debate on science by scientists. Vega has tried to do something about this by producing science discussion programmes, the first of which was a discussion on whether GM foods are safe.
We employed a recognised production company, chose some of the most knowledgeable scientists in the field and made a broadcast quality recording. This debate, described by the chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science as "the most informed discussion on the subject that he has seen" although partly financed by the BBC as a pilot, was not taken up by the BBC, nor was the idea of having a science discussion programme centred on topical subjects initiated. Perhaps the BBC has judged that the public are not really interested/intelligent enough to hear what scientists say about the science and technology that affects our every day life? Perhaps they feel that we must spoon feed science through media interpreters, with any difficult piece of science excluded? And perhaps then we need to ask ourselves whether this is really what the scientist would say or is it just a producer's interpretation? How then are we to judge complex issues, including the ethics of both the scientist doing the work, the science produced and more to the point judge whether is it good for our future? Fortunately for Vega, the BBC Open University took the opportunity to collaborate with us on a series of discussions entitled "The Next Big Thing". Unfortunately, these programmes are not broadcast until 00.30 but they do attract an audience of 100,000-300,000 viewers. This is a start; I look forward to a day when we can regularly listen to open debate by scientists and others at a reasonable time on subjects that really concern us, and feel informed enough to make up our own minds.
Recently, I was privileged to sit in on a fascinating interview with Sir Joseph Rotblat, the founder of Pugwash. The interview, which lasted two days, resulted in an in-depth coverage of Rotblat's personal history, his work in nuclear physics and medicine, his philosophy on life and his contribution to world peace through Pugwash. It also delved considerably into Rotblat's ethics concerning his work on the nuclear bomb. This interview forms part of a series of interviews that Vega is presently working on (we have in-depth interviews with Sir Max Perutz, Sir Fred Sanger and Sir John Cornforth, all financed by donations and made with time and effort given freely by the scientists involved). Vega aims to give scientists a chance to be heard talking about what they feel is important, and in doing so add to a science archive that will be accessible freely over the internet. We will be able to hear the science set in its context, gaining a greater understanding than we have had to date about many issues. In Rotblat's case, this includes why he originally agreed to work on the nuclear bomb against his humanitarian principles and why he changed his mind.
If you would like to find out more about the Vega Science Trust and our public appreciation of science and educational efforts, please go to our website www.vega.org.uk or email me at [email]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email] Failing that, we will be at the British Association of Science festival every year where we hold a two-day scienimatheque showing the science programmes that have been short-listed for a Vega Award.