Public understanding of science

BBC Radio 4’s Day of the Scientist (12 Oct.) was timely in a world where science is serving us so well. Sir Patrick Vallance called for science to be as highly regarded as economics by politicians. To that I would add the need for interdisciplinarity. Science and society belong together.

Scotland, to its great discredit, was without a Chief Scientific Adviser for a lengthy period around 2016. Cynics might even have suspected the SNP preferred not to have scientific advice.

During 13 years as an Edinburgh city councillor there seemed little understanding of Science among the majority of councillors and council staff. It would have been comforting to read accurate accounts of properties of materials, to challenge the extremes of populism over e.g. genetic modification, to have been sure that sustainability was more than a buzzword. Happily Liberal Democrats had scientist councillors Sue Tritton and Jim Lowrie in our ranks. And the current group has councillor Kevin Lang.

Public understanding of science is vital, and it is encouraging that many excellent communicators have been given air time during the pandemic. Edinburgh has an annual Science Festival, where people can learn in a fun way – from making lie detectors (very useful for a politician’s bag of tricks) to tasting different chocolates – as well as hearing stimulating talks aimed at a general audience. Chaos theory remains one of my favourites; perhaps helpful in assessing the current crop of ruling politicians.

POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) is a great source of factual information. Its POSTnotes appear regularly with ‘Advances in vaccine technologies’ among the most recent. And a big shout for our own ALDES (Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists). You don’t have to be a scientist (I’m not) to be a member but do have to be interested …. and as every Liberal Democrat has an enquiring mind …

* Moyra Forrest is a member and former councillor in Edinburgh. She worked as research librarian for Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, Edinburgh University.

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  • I can think of more than a few of our members that could do with being signed up to a science course.

  • Thanks Moyra for this. It’s been a long-term annoyance of mine that general scientific literacy is so low in this country. Not just that it’s low, but so many people who like to think themselves clever are proud of not understanding or caring about ‘science’. I too was concerned at the length of time the Scottish Government was without a Chief Scientific Advisor and how comfortable they were admitting that they pushed a number of policies considering only the political, not scientific aspects.

    I do very much appreciate that science only takes us so far, and politics has a role in decision-making, but when there’s no science to start with, or understanding of it from politicians, it’s a problem. But unfortunately we’re in a culture where science is seen as irrelevant to politics or aspiring politicians.

    Dare I say it, but many people don’t actually get what science is – thinking it’s an obsession with technology or similar.

    Learning ‘science’ is a big ask, but I think everyone with an interest in public policy should, as a minimum, read Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”. It’s a bit old now, but it gets to the point of the dangers of poor science communication, especially in relation to medical matters. No-one can be expected to know all of the answers, and I can see why scientific discussions can seem daunting to the non-expert, but so much of it is about asking the right questions. You don’t need to be a specialist to spot the kind of word-trickery which is used to disguise poorly evidenced messaging.

  • Peter Martin 15th Oct '21 - 9:01am

    “It’s been a long-term annoyance of mine that general scientific literacy is so low in this country. ”

    Is it any better anywhere else? In terms of Nobel prizes the UK does better than anyone apart from the USA.

    United States (375)
    United Kingdom (131)
    Germany (108)
    France (69)

    This corresponds with my own experience of other nationalities. The Europeans are certainly much better at languages than we are, but no better at anything else including science. There is a problem everywhere when it comes to scientific understanding.

    One of the very few times I got a clean sweep on final stage of the TV program “Pointless”, just watching at home, was when the topic of SI units came up. Newtons for Force etc No-one in my family was particularly impressed!

  • It might bug me in other country’s too! I was talking about my knowledge of this country, as it’s where I live and I see the problems of a lack of respect for it here. That said, my friend who moved to Germany is of the very strong opinion that scientists and engineers are respected more there than here. The fact that many European scientists and engineers speak great English is incidental.

    I don’t think that the number of Nobel Prize winners for science is a good metric for how good scientific literacy is amongst the general public. We can pat ourselves on the back for that, but it doesn’t mean that our politicians or voters have a good grasp of what they need to know. The lack of scientific literacy amongst the general public is perhaps even more infuriating because we have these achievements.

    Just as scientists can enjoy a good novel, non-scientists can have an interest in how things work, but if you didn’t learn enough science in school then it can be more like trying to read a novel in a foreign language.

    I don’t think we should force everyone to take an A-level (or equivalent) in a science subject. Some might say it’s pointless forcing some people to a GCSE (or equivalent) in a science subject. I understand why some people lobby to let people who aren’t going to become research scientists take exams in a language instead, but I think that is the wrong approach. In many ways, ‘science’ is its own language, and I argue that abdicating responsibility of everything science to scientists is wrong. But we should improve how we teach and assess science for those for whom it’s never going to be a career.

  • Martin Frost 16th Oct '21 - 8:51am

    I am all for a greater understanding and respect for science but I note that the Covid crisis has led to a proliferation of scientific media stars with the same basic idea about how to handle Covid – lockdown. The many scientists who advocate an alternative approach have been excluded from the debate. In the UK, we have “followed the science” and where has it led ? One of the worst Covid death rates in the world and before anyone says it, No locking down sooner would NOT have saved thousands of lives. If we are going to invest in science let it be the pure kind. We have enough mathematical modellers, public health experts and behavioural nudgers already.

  • Nonconformistradical 16th Oct '21 - 1:35pm

    “Just as scientists can enjoy a good novel, non-scientists can have an interest in how things work, but if you didn’t learn enough science in school then it can be more like trying to read a novel in a foreign language.”
    Occasionally there even came along a scientist who wrote novels – C P Snow (of the 2 Cultures lecture) and Nevil Shute. Fred Hoyle wrote some science fiction books. I don’t know of any current examples.

    Is the problem for many people they way in which they were taught (any) science in school?

  • Peter Martin 17th Oct '21 - 2:44am

    @ Martin Frost,

    If you are “all for a greater understanding and respect for science” you should know better than to make unsupported assertions like “…….before anyone says it, No locking down sooner would NOT have saved thousands of lives”.

    Can you please supply a reference from a peer reviewed source?

  • Andrew Tampion 17th Oct '21 - 7:22am

    There does seem to be a bias against science. One example is that the Booker and Turner prizes are regularly covered by the media, with award ceremonies being broadcast. But I have never seen comparable coverage of the Royal Society of London Michael Faraday Prize.

  • Rob Harrison 17th Oct '21 - 10:33am

    Australia and New Zealand both have the Prime Minister Prizes for Science which definitely help in promoting the profiles of scientists in their countries.

  • Rob Harrison 17th Oct '21 - 10:37am

    @Martin Frost and Peter Martin:
    I don’t know any peer-reviewed research in the UK, but researchers at Columbia University concluded that locking down sooner in the US would have saved a significant number of lives. Report is at this website:

  • Moyra Forrest 17th Oct '21 - 10:53am

    Thanks for comments.
    I suspect the challenge of learning science without labs. and proper equipment may deter some interested post schooldays. And indeed, affect choices of those forced to learn online only. I loved physics and chemistry though dropped both after O levels to learn German. Had the then [Scottish Higher] curriculum included optics and day-to-day electricity, that choice would have been more difficult.
    “Following the science” seems a very unhelpful mantra. The nature of most science is controversy: resolved by evidence, peer review, healthy debate, replication of experiments etc. At the time of the Windscale Inquiry, lawyers expressed frustration that there was no one “science”. Hence my call for interdisciplinarity and better mutual understanding of our world.

  • @Nonconformistradical I do think a lot of the problem is how we teach science in schools. While I’m sure most English teachers would love to inspire their students to study English literature at university, they accept that their kids gaining an appreciation of literature with no academic future is a good result, and that ensuring every child has a decent level of literacy is a basic requirement, not an optional extra. I have some quibbles with how I was taught and there’s room for improvement, but overall, our approach to teaching English accepts this.

    On the other hand, I don’t think we consider basic scientific literacy, or the ability to read a graph, or question the data behind figures banded about in the news, as an essential life skill that everyone should leave school with. Even basic scientific understanding is treated as niche, for the nerds and swots, to be dropped ASAP by the interesting ‘creative’ and ‘artistic’ people.

    Which brings us to Andrew’s point about the recognition and prestige that is awarded to winners of different prizes. A Nobel prize for science (or anything) is arguably more prestigious than a BAFTA or Oscar, but it’s normal for us to have experience actors and pop stars being praised as their chat show appearances are piped into our living rooms. The media personalities who end up hosting chat shows make jokes about how terrible they were at maths and science, and that it was a waste of time. Every now and then they’ll appear on “Stand up to Cancer” or similar and say how impressed they are by medical researchers, but even that underlines how the mechanics of science stuff is for other people.

    There’s no easy way to reverse that thinking, but I do think we could do more to improve how we teach science at schools to kids who aren’t going to study science at university.

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