Why don't people like me?

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<ul><li><p>My word</p><p>Why dont peoplelike me?Jordan Raff</p><p>Why are the British public sosuspicious of science and scientists?These days many might point tomad cow disease and geneticallymodified foods as primary causes,but the publics mistrust of sciencegoes back much further and runsmuch deeper than these recentscares. As a child in Britain, most ofmy classmates seemed instinctivelyto know that science was difficultand boring, and that only nerdy brainboxes did it. Even now, I often feelslightly embarrassed at socialoccasions when I have to confess tobeing a scientist.</p><p>This dim view of science andscientists in the UK is so ingrainedthat we rarely question it. Indeed,who could argue that extra publicmoney should be spent onrefurbishing our academicinstitutions when we cant afford tokeep our hospitals and schools in adecent condition, or that scientistsdeserve a bigger slice of the publicpay packet when nurses and teachersare paid so poorly? Yet, the lowlysocial status of science is not auniversal phenomenon.</p><p>When I went to work as a postdocat the University of California in SanFrancisco in 1990, I was shocked tofind that the American public had acompletely different attitude toscience. The top scientists at UCSFwere highly respected members ofthe local community. They wereinvited to the major social events inthe city and they were on first nameterms with many of the local politicaland social leaders. And it wasnt justthe senior scientists. Many of mynew non-scientist friends in the USwere interested to hear that I was a</p><p>scientist and wanted to knowmore about what I did. Theyseemed proud to know someonewho is a scientist.</p><p>This public support for sciencedirectly translates into theremarkably generous level ofpolitical and financial support forbasic research in the US. Even whenthe economy was running anenormous budget deficit and therewere large cuts in welfare, healthand defence spending, the basicscience budget was largelyprotected. What is most remarkableabout this is not just that it is theexact opposite of the politicalpriorities we take for granted in theUK, but that protecting the sciencebudget was one of the few issues onwhich the Republicans andDemocrats agreed. Now that theAmerican economy is boomingagain, both parties are falling overthemselves to be the ones thatpropose the biggest increase in thescience budget.</p><p>Although the American publicdont understand science anybetter than the British, they seemto value it more highly </p><p>Why do the North Americans andBritish view science so differently?It is apparently not because theAmerican public understandsscience better than the Britishpublic. For every survey that revealswhat an ignorant bunch of scientificilliterates we Brits are, there is anequivalent survey showing that thesame is true of the Americans.Whatever the reasons, which are nodoubt complex, the American publicseem to believe that science issocially and economically valuable,whereas the majority of the Britishpublic seem to believe thatscientists only take a break fromtorturing animals to plot ever more</p><p>devious ways of undermining thegreat British way of life.</p><p>It is important to stress here thatI am not suggesting the Americanview is necessarily the right view;perhaps the British are right to be sosuspicious. But, for those of us inBritain who believe that science is,on the whole, both socially andeconomically worthwhile, itsimportant to realize that we need todo much more to help temper thepublics scepticism toward science.</p><p>There is much we can do. UCSF,for example, often invited localpoliticians to visit and find out moreabout what the scientists were doing.How many of us in the UK have everinvited our local MP to visit ourdepartment or institution? Perhapsmore important, there was also aconstant stream of schoolchildrenvisiting the UCSF labs. A few peoplefrom each lab could, at a momentsnotice, give a simple and veryinformal presentation on thebiological questions they were tryingto address, and put on a few visuallystriking demonstrations. It wasalways gratifying to hear thechildrens surprise that life in ascience lab did not look so boringafter all.</p><p>When I returned to work in alaboratory in the UK, I tried to set upsimilar visits from local schools butthe idea was not greeted by mycolleagues with much enthusiasm.Wouldnt it be dangerous in alreadycrowded labs? What if there was anaccident? Wouldnt it take up toomuch time? Although these are validobjections, they are not legitimateexcuses for inaction. We scientists inthe UK need to re-assess ourpriorities. We need to make a muchgreater effort to get out of our ivorytowers and explain to the publicwhat we do and why we do it. If wedont, we may soon find that wedont have many ivory towers left.</p><p>Address: Wellcome-CRC Institute, TennisCourt Road, Cambridge CB2 1QR, UK.</p><p>R793</p><p>Magazine</p><p>My wordWhy dont people like me?</p></li></ul>


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