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A sideways look at
National Science Week

Boz magazine, 59: 8, April 1999.

Brian J Ford

National Science Week is an annual ritual. Oh, what a success, they say; at least, they do if they are the spin doctors that lurk in the corridors of power. If you speak to the scientists, a different story emerges: science week is rarely well supported by the public. A few people wander through strange-looking exhibits and emerge, blinking, into the rain. The overall effect on public education is virtually non-existent. National Science Week is pure tokenism. If the government is asked what it is doing to help people come to terms with the new scientific discoveries, they point to the number of laboratories involved and everyone is impressed. This is the era of league tables, when all that matters is the number of events, and not their quality.

For the government it is a hugely profitable investment. They trigger the effort with a modest amount of money, and gain the support of hundreds of scientists in response. The result is worth millions of pounds, in commercial terms, and all for a small pump-priming payment. It’s a marvellous business opportunity, from the same stable as the plastic window salesmen on the look-out for a show house (which just happens to be yours). “We are looking for a show-lab in your area,” you could hear them say. “We’d like to give you a mention in our programme, and if you could arrange to let the public in — and perhaps give a talk — it would help us immensely.” Fair enough, think the gullible scientists, and away go the promoters, jubilant at collaring yet another sucker. I’m sorry, but if National Science Week is really a chance to let the public into the laboratory, then it’s time we started telling them the truth. The world of science is missing a golden opportunity to set the record straight. The facts are: Government misuses science. All we hear about is wealth creation, and wealth creation has nothing to do with pure science. Scientists are motivated by curiosity, by a desire to help unravel mysteries. The businessmen lurking in the wings are there for a quick profit, by marketing at a high price some cheap new concept, but the scientists were working for the thrill of discovering something new.

Current policies stifle scientific freedom. Scientists are rarely allowed to discuss their work, if there is the slightest chance it might make money for somebody, somewhere. The traditional openness of science has vanished, and it has been replaced by duplicity. Scientists are indulging in industrial espionage as much as in intellectual freedom. Science is no longer a career. Young scientists are typically on three-year contracts. After three years working on something for a plastic manufacturer, time is up and the young scientist may next be working in Huddersfield or Vladivostok. What chance is there to educate children? How can you buy a home? What’s the point of getting married and trying to settle down? Research is force-fed. Once scientists made discoveries, pressing back those elusive frontiers of understanding, and the new knowledge carried us forward. Now you are expected to know more or less what product you are going to produce before you even start. The results all go to your sponsors, anyway, who own the intellectual property rights for what you have found.

Science is dying on its feet. Technicians are the new scientists. Science is all about freedom and excitement; technology is about making products to sell. We have swapped education — opening the mind — for training, which drags along the incumbent like a bridal (or steam) train. Education releases the mind; training replaces innovative spirit with doctrinaire obedience. Today’s science programmes for children are riddled with mistakes, and so are the popular reference books. Science has become secretive, so it is hardly surprising that the public distrust GM foods. The government insists that they need to be open about scientific policies, but hardly anybody in government understands the issues anyway. The public are supposed to find out what’s best, but there is rarely any chance for them to do so.

Here’s a test for everyone when Science Week comes around. Go into a laboratory, and ask the scientists whether they are secure in their jobs, and happy for the future. Then ask them about the problems their work may pose. The results may surprise you. After all, it was in East Germany and Bucharest that the greatest demonstrations of personal freedom used to take place. Government-sponsored displays of happiness and security are the hall-mark of bureaucratic states, not democracies.

It’s time for the public to manifest the open-mindedness that scientists have always espoused. National Science Week? ‘National science - weak’, more like.

Go to the Laboratory News report, National Science, Weak, to the previous article, to the next in the series, or to the 'Boz' Features title index.