Time to Stand Up

Where to start? I’m 63. I have a title: the Stuart Professor of Science Communication. But what does it all mean?

I started my professional life as a scientist, as wedded to the notion of a testable hypothesis as any human can be. Earlier, as a boy, I had been drawn to science by some of the 20th Century’s greatest popularisers of science: David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, Gerald Durrell, Desmond Morris, Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson. I’ve always appreciated the schism that exists between the doing and the telling. If in my head I was a scientist, in my heart I leant towards science communication.

Now, I find myself as both a researcher and a practitioner of science communication. Through books and films, I try to make my own way along some of the same ground that Attenborough and Sagan strode. Through my research, I try to understand how science can be communicated most effectively and what the consequences of that may be.

So why start a blog on science communication? Why not just get on with my research or with communicating science to the masses? Those are good questions, for which I have only partial answers.

At the beginning of last year, I was diagnosed with an incurable illness. It might kill me; it might not. With luck, either way, the outcome will not be known for a good many years. Yet, as if someone in his sixties should ever need reminding of his mortality, such stark news has a way of concentrating the mind. It gets you questioning what you’ve done, what you do, and what you’re going to do.

And here’s the thing: I’ve always been a private kind of guy when it comes to my own affairs. It’s not borne of any idealism or philosophy that puts the privacy of the individual above all else. It is far more petty and bizarrely irrelevant. I’ve always kept my views largely to myself – my political views, my scientific views, my anything views – for no other reason than to keep my options open; to not go down a path I would later regret; to not make mistakes.

But as I look around from my current perspective, the world is, by any dispassionate measure, a fucking mess. Global warming is really just the tip of an ice berg that is not in any way disappearing; a symptom, not the cause, of our precarious futures. Among other symptoms, there’s the loss of biodiversity from Planet Earth at a rate that is unprecedented, even allowing for the impact of the odd comet or two. There are diseases and resistant bugs just biding their time before unleashing a calamity we cannot even begin to imagine. There is the growing disparity between poor nations and rich nations, and, within nations, between poor people and rich people. There are a couple of madmen with their hands on nuclear weapons while there are billions of decent men and women unable to get their hands on enough food or clean water to give to their children.

Yet, if we would all just stop for a minute and take a breath, we’d quickly see that at the core of virtually all the serious problems facing the world today are science and technology. Progress, ironically, has led to distress. Perversely, if science is the cause of our current malaise, it is also our best medicine, the best chance we have to save the planet and ourselves.

Which is where science communication comes in. It has never been more imperative for society to understand science and technology; to be able to support that which is good and to shun that which is bad. To do that, however, the public and politicians must be able to assess the outputs of scientists who are notoriously complicated and qualified in their deliberations. We need scientists who can speak with a common touch and, much more than that, we need science communicators who can act as the conduits between the public and science. More science communication research is also needed to reveal how to make those channels between science and society more efficient, more effective, and more universal.

It’s time to stand up and be counted.

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