Friday, February 29, 2008

Nature Chief Editor talks to master students in Barcelona

Yesterday I attended a conference by Dr. Philip Campbell, Chief Director of Nature. The occasion was the inauguration of a Master in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication that is given by the UPF, and the title of the talk was “Communicating science to researchers, science's stakeholders and public”.

He raised some interesting points and mentioned some anecdotes that I think exemplify the importance of scientists communicating their work to society.

Example 1: A law was ready to pass in Switzerland (where the constitution can be changed if enough people ask for it in a referendum) to completely ban any type of GMO from the market. This was avoided only because scientists joined forces and created a lobby to start explaining to the public the benefits of GMO in some fields (such as medicine), to convince them, to make them understand why the job they were doing was important.

Point 2: how can the public treat uncertainty in science and yet maintain their trust in science? i.e. how can people believe in what scientists say and at the same time understand that nobody is actually sure that what they are saying is true? Should we (science communicators, be either scientists or journalists or others) not talk about the uncertainty part in order to avoid chaos and mistrust? He said no, and I totally agree. That would be a patronising attitude, and we should not treat the public as if they were stupid. They are perfectly able to understand – if WE are able to explain it to them properly – that biology or medicine are not exact sciences; that research means coming up with theories, finding evidence that supports them or goes against them and that there is contradictory evidence (life is contradictory, everyone can understand that!) and some theories or some experiments may take years to be proven or replicated (Philip mentioned an example of an experiment in angiogenesis that nobody was able to replicate for years, but that ended up proven to be right). And that despite this, research is good; that science makes the society advance; that it is good to know ‘the truth’, even if it is to find out later that it wasn’t exactly right; that step by step (and even if some of these steps are backwards) we are going in the right direction.

Idea 3: Philip said scientists should be more willing to make a stand about things that are important. He mentioned evolution vs. creationism, and for him evolution is not a theory anymore, but a fact, since we have now enough fossils to not have any big gaps in the evolutionary history explanation. Another example was climate change, and he directed us to a the website This is website “about climate change by climate scientists”, in which scientists working in the field write comments, in an easy to understand way, about recently published papers related to climate change. This is to try to avoid misunderstandings or overstatements by the general media. Before these have a chance to change the story, real scientists give their expert opinion on the matter directly.

He talked about many other things but these were the three main messages I took home and wanted to share here. Be an active communicator, don’t be patronising, make a stand!!!

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