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We Need to 'Re-Brand' Science

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Actor and comedian Ben Miller used a striking choice of words this week when he said this week that science was in a television programming 'ghetto' because executives, many of whom have arts and humanities degrees, don't understand or value the excitement of it.

I couldn't agree more. Science is in a ghetto - and not just a televisual one. It's seen as set apart from society and culture, rather than being a part of them.

Britain is, for instance, one of the least science-intensive economies in the G8. Our news media, despite all its past travails and improvements, still comes under fire for communicating science badly. Funding for science is an incredibly tiny proportion of total public spending. Our school system gets criticised for teaching what other people have discovered and how to follow scientific 'recipes', instead of helping students actually understand or 'do' science. Politicians, of course, have a particularly appalling track record in embracing scientific evidence.

In each of these cases there is an obvious scapegoat. You could blame investors for being scared of making the kind of long-term bets necessary for commercialising research, editors for not prioritising science, schools for not promoting science teachers, or politicians for being too sure of their own opinions.

But there's another way of looking at it - and here is where Ben Miller's self-confessed 'rant' in his Radio Times interview particularly chimed with me. These problems are all symptoms of a deeper issue; we don't see science as part of our culture. This needs to change.

Take 'citizen science', for instance. Projects like Galaxy Zoo, FoldIt, and AshTag show the potential of involving non-professionals in the scientific process. But the fact that we call this 'citizen science' is illuminating. There is no such thing as 'citizen politics', 'citizen sport' or 'citizen music'. It's just politics, sport or music. These areas all have an expert, professional class - just like science does - but they also have a broader community that feels a sense of identity and ownership over them. These are the people who buy the t-shirt, go to the gig, play Sunday football, or become political activists. It's a group whose analogue we don't have in science.

We wouldn't define something like tennis or photography just by its professional community, yet science is caricatured as something done by men in lab coats - instead of a definition based on its role in our economy, social lives, politics or the media. We've ended up in an odd paradox where, despite science's importance to society, it's ended up in a cultural silo. Most of the people who have both the inclination and the ability to defend, promote, criticise or debate science come from the relatively small professional community.

So it shouldn't really be such a surprise that science doesn't have the cultural profile we want it to. It does mean, however, that to change it we need to open up science. Luckily, there are an increasing number of ways to do that.

We've got more and more opportunities: citizen science experiments and bio-hacking; more science in popular media; events such as science festivals or 'Lates'; venues like Science Centres and museums; movements like MakerFaire and Skeptics in the Pub; and political campaigns such as AllTrials and Science is Vital.

But do people who engage in individual activities make the leap and engage in others? Are we pulling in enough people from new and diverse backgrounds? Do these people consider themselves as part of a science community, or do they engage just as a novelty? How can we connect science with the rest of society? These are the questions that we've been asking ourselves, as the British Science Association, while we've been developing our new vision and plans for the coming years.

We believe that science education needn't necessarily be about creating future scientists; it should create a population that's comfortable in understanding, using, and engaging with science, and sees it just as another part of life. That's partly why the BSA has teamed up with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award; if young people achieve one of our Bronze, Silver or Gold CREST Awards, it now counts towards their DofE 'skill' at the same level, for example.

The BSA needs to do more to help people enjoy, explore, investigate and discuss science. We must support, grow and diversity the community of people who are interested in and involved in science, technology, engineering and maths; and who contribute to its impact on UK culture, our society and the economy.

Over the coming months and years, our programmes will do more to help people to engage with science, become ambassadors for science, and ultimately to be empowered to challenge and influence British science. We want to create more partnerships to ensure that more communities, cultural institutions and public spaces are celebrating and giving people opportunities to participate in science. And we plan to do more with Citizen Science, as well as lead public debate on hot topics.

We want to take science out of its cultural 'ghetto' and make it something that belongs to a wider community. In short, we want to rebrand science.

Around the Web

UK Science - British Council - Science

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