Public Awareness of Science and Technology

A contribution from Dr R.G. Evans, Principal, Stockport College of Further & Higher Education.

Introduction

Following a recent lecture at the ASE’s Annual Meeting, on the public understanding of science, I reflected on some of the issues raised and would like to share some of my thoughts in this article. I accept that a lot of the issues have already been aired before, but hope the article will trigger further discussion and debate on this important topic.

The need to raise awareness and greater understanding of science is now irrefutable, as we all live in an increasingly scientific and technological world. The advent of the information revolution, driven by information technology, further requires members of society to be better informed of science and technological advance. Schools, colleges and universities obviously have a major role to play in this endeavour, but with the need now for lifelong learning, other agencies must be involved, and that most certainly includes the mass media.

The communicators.

So, who should be the main agents that bring about the greater understanding of science? The view held by some is that it is the front-line scientists and researchers who should be the agents. They should be trained to become effective communicators and monies should be used from the research allocations to facilitate this activity. I fear such arguments are flawed, as the vast majority of researchers are inherently incapable of effectively communicating their subject to the public at large, let alone explaining all the associated elements of the various topics. Formal courses, surely, could not immediately create a legion of gifted communicators. Researchers, after all, want to do research and not be required to explain to the public at large their discoveries, ideas and theories. Many, in fact, feel that the very act of attempting to do this debases and dilutes the purity of their subject. It is, after all, one of the elements of the Guild of Science that it is often perceived as a closed and somewhat inward-looking academic community, and I would argue that in many cases this should be respected. Effective communicators are a rare breed who have to possess a very special range of talents, especially in such a complex and multidimensional topic as raising public understanding of science and technology.

One important aspect is that other dimensions need to be explored, attempting to get the public to understand science and technological developments and advances and their possible consequences for the world. Joseph Needham used the wonderful expression ‘an ecumenical universe of science and technology, valid for every man and woman on the face of the earth’. I interpret this to mean that science and technology cannot be divorced from other subjects. Its roots are multicultural and it is very much a multidisciplinary subject and needs to play its part alongside religion, philosophy, history, politics and artistic experience. I would argue that for the public to gain a greater insight into the understanding of science, these elements need also to be articulated to them in an understandable and comprehensible way.

This is not to say that there have not been some very gifted communicators and popularizers of science. Names that immediately spring to mind are Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Russell Stannard, Frank Close and the late Jacob Bronowski, but there are, sadly, very few, and I feel this kind of steerage and proposal would not bring about the hoped-for changes. Very often, non-scientists can be the best communicators of science and its associated dimensions.

Role of the mass media.

This brings us, then, to the role of the mass media. The mass media have a responsibility to raise awareness and to develop critical understanding of science and technology within society. Too often they use hype and whizzbang approaches to impress and further engender the sense in people that science is mysterious, weird and incomprehensible. They too often fail to inform and encourage insight by the readers/viewers. Popularizers must be explainers and must stimulate and sustain scientific awareness and relate it to the products and services of their daily lives. Many people argue that journals and the tabloid press have a responsibility to raise awareness of science and technology. As indicated above, practising scientists and researchers are often reluctant to communicate about their subject, often feeling it simplifies and belittles the subject, and many journalists often find it difficult to obtain information from the scientists and researchers.

One of the problems that technical and popular science journals have is the issue of lexical complexity. Science and technology, by definition, can be dominated by specialized jargon and abstractions. Hayes attempted to quantify lexical complexity by carrying out a very careful analysis of the proportions of jargon and uncommon words within various publications. He assigned an arbitrary scale, for example, to English Newspapers, 0 being the average. Any value under ten is considered to be a typical day’s read and is comprehensible by the vast majority of the population. He computed a range of values for a typical day (3 June 1992) and these were as follows:

Newspaper Value
The Sun -11.0
The Daily Express -2.7
The Economist 0.
The Times +3.4
The Guardian +5.5
The Financial Times +9.6

Hayes extended his analysis to scientific journals: Nature attracted a lexical complexity of +40 and Scientific American, often perceived as effective reading material for the lay person, had a value approaching +15. Other more specialized journals had scores in excess of +50. Obviously, these high scores are understandable, but ensure that only specialists in that particular area of study can hope to comprehend the content of these publications. The key issue for the public understanding of science is how journals such as New Scientist, Science and Public Affairs, and Scientific American can communicate the ideas to the lay reader. Not easy, because clearly science has to have its own scientific language, low on redundancy, and therefore highly specialized terms are used, and clearly the associated mathematics adds to the difficulty. This challenging area, I feel, is very fascinating to those who are desperate to improve the awareness and understanding of science in the general community and merits further research.

Measuring performance improvement.

Another factor which intrigues me is that some seem to think that one can gauge public understanding of science and its possible improvement if some of the above proposals are implemented. I must admit, I have difficulties with trying to understand how one could measure performance improvement, although I do appreciate that it is a classic example of the free market. After all, there seems to be a performance indicator for everything these days.

But how do we gauge public understanding of science and its improvement over a period of time? Surely not by using simple questionnaires or surveys which reduce it to a sort of Ask the Family or The Brain of Britain approach, which require just simple recall about how many planets there are and who discovered the laws of gravitation. I suppose in some ways this brings us full circle, and possibly there needs to be a reconsideration of what we mean by the word understanding in this context.

Whatever happens, it clearly is important that we continue to seek ways, through formal education and training and lifelong learning, to bring about a greater understanding of science by the public and it is essential that we ourselves know what the word understanding means.

A similar article which is another transcript of a talk presented to the Royal Society in 1992.The transcript appeared in the Foundation for Science and Technology.

It will assist the presentation if I build the talk around a paraphrase quoted from T.S. Elliot: “Between the ideal and reality falls the shadow”.

THE IDEAL

A competent, flexible and responsive workforce, sufficient in number to cope with the challenges that face this country.

The Engineering Council (EC) have said that “Engineers of tomorrow must be technically competent, market conscious, commercially adept, environmentally sensitive and responsive to human needs”. The Council have also stressed the importance of the engineering team comprising the Multi Skilled Craft Person, Engineering Technician, Incorporated Engineer and the Chartered Engineer. It is important that each member of the team is recognised and supported by on-going quality education and training. This country has for too long neglected the essential importance of the craft-person and technician. After all, for every engineer, scientist and technologist there needs to be at least four to five highly qualified support staff helping to put ideas into practice.

THE REALITY

An educational/training system which is manifestly elitist and driven by a process of accumulative failure.

Quality is equated with rarity.

Too early specialisation restricts access for the mature student and other disadvantaged groups, i.e. women, ethnic minorities.

The post-16 scene is fragmented in terms of providers the curriculum and qualifications. It is a jungle of immense complexity and proportions. Employers and Higher Education Institutions are quite rightly baffled by the plethora of awards, many of which restrict progression and lack coherence.

One of the main symptoms of the disease is the philosophy of short-termism that permeates our society. “The City Mentality” dominates practically all elements of our society and education and training is no exception. We lurch from one short term scheme/initiative to another, without any re-evaluation or long term planning. Other nations appear to plan their education and training programmes over decades as opposed to months/a few years.

A number of features in engineering highlight the factors in the present system that put a limitation on the opportunities available for the prospective engineer:

  • The historical pattern of courses and awards
  • The high threshold knowledge of requirement for entry
  • The low participation of women/adults and people and from ethnic minorities
  • Continuous pressure to expand and update the syllabuses.
  • The higher than average drop-out and failure.

(It might be a sad reality that for this country there is a cultural factor. However, that is a major topic for another talk!)

A recent statistic sadly notes that the number of apprentices in engineering in 1991/92 is down by 33%: 6,000 as compared with 9,000 in 1991, and 20,000 in the late 70s.

THE SHADOW

There are many factors that contribute to the production of the shadow. The curriculum is polarised into the vocational and academic tracks with little opportunity to transfer between them. The current situation can be somewhat simplistically represented by the ‘V’ model. The ‘V’ represents the two separate tracks of academic/vocational awards – two different vehicles, possessing different statuses and travelling at different speeds, diverging with little or no connection.

The recent pronouncements in the White Paper about the proposed new Ordinary and Advance Diplomas offer little hope that the situation will improve. A number of institutions and consortia have developed the so-called ‘Y’ model – a common first-year bringing together academic and vocational awards. After one year students can elect to pursue an academic route (AS or A-levels) or a vocational route (BTEC). A great deal of exciting work is being done on the ‘ Y’ model, for example, Wessex, Northwest Modular and at Gloscat. An ultimate hope is that the ‘Y’ model can evolve into an T’ model, i.e. the single curriculum framework. We should do all we can to encourage the ‘Y’ model and hence the incrementalist approach to curriculum reform. The British Baccalaureate (BB) and the Royal Society proposals advocate the root and branch approach for the creation of T’ model and have added hope to this endeavour. Unfortunately, the recent proposals to limit course work to 20% for A-levels and the move to reduce course work on GCSE will seriously endanger these incremental approaches to bring together academic/vocational awards and to engender parity of esteem between these awards.

This country is obsessed with the supposed “historical standards”, i.e. the A-level and the importance of full-time honours degrees. Another factor is the undue influence of the independent sector. Successive Secretaries of State have consulted, listened to and have been disproportionately influenced by this faction. Such consultation is surely equivalent to consulting the Kray twins on law and order. All I ask is that the Secretaries of State consult all sectors’of education/training on an equitable, basis.

The Education Reform Act and the White Papers encourage education/training to move into the market place which promotes destructive competition and enforces isolated institutional autonomy. Education and training is too valuable to be exposed to a Darwinian philosophy (i.e. the strongest survive and thrive!).

HOW DO WE REMOVE THE SHADOW?

We must introduce greater order to the post-16 system, i.e. lower the entropy! (Entropy is a measure of the disorder of/in a system). The Schools Examinations and Assessment Council and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications should be merged. A single Department of Education and Training should be established. The number of professional bodies that represent engineering (47 at the last count) must be reduced. Encouragement and support is needed for local partnerships between the worlds of work and education/training, the Training and Enterprise Councils and the Local Education Authorities. Local networks must be established between education institutions offering real and effective opportunities for progression for all. Full support should be given to the endeavours of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications with more realistic deadlines for them. The Council must however rationalise the large number of lead bodies which set standards for NVQs, although it is interesting to note science does not yet have a lead body. Greater ease of access and participation in the system is needed for all, particularly mature and other disadvantaged groups, with the removal of the financial barriers that are at present being put into place deterring such students accessing the system. Encouragement is required for an incremental approach to curriculum reform, i.e. the ‘Y’ model, with support given to moving to the T’ model as quickly as possible. It is vital that Careers education, counselling and guidance for all is improved and if we accept that education and training is a life-long process then we must move away from

‘Admission to Transition and from Selection to Matching’.

Institutions must develop more flexible modes of delivery of the curriculum, i.e. distance learning, part-time provision and tailor-made programmes for industry and mature students. To excite and attract young people into the engineering world there must be close collaboration with primary and secondary schools. Education and training in engineering should adopt the ‘E’ model (sorry more of the alphabet soup). The ‘E’ represents an ongoing and sensible balance of breadth and depth in the curriculum as opposed to the existing ‘T’ model with early specialisations and only later the introduction of breadth. Modular developments into programmes of study and a wider system of credit recognition needs to be adopted. The excellent work of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) in its credit accumulation and transfer scheme (CATS) should be built upon at all levels.

CONCLUSION

The shadow between the ideal and reality can be removed provided we accept that it exists and a concerted effort is made to remove it. Only then can we view the future with optimism.

FINAL COMMENTS

Quality must be equated with fitness for purpose for all. We must introduce “Unity in place of Fragmentation” and “Flexibility in place of Rigidity”.

In order to cope with all these challenges we surely must adopt the abattoir metaphor:

“Act sensitively but beware of vested interests”.

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