General public needs to up its understanding of science

Informed public invaluable for ensuring right decisions are made by government

People  have a responsibility to better understand science

People have a responsibility to better understand science


The burning of smokey coal in Dublin was banned back in 1990, with claims and counter claims about whether it was a good move or a waste of time.

In 2004 the smoking ban in public buildings was introduced, making it an offence to smoke tobacco indoors nearly everywhere but in the home. In 2012 Teagasc got permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to plant genetically modified potatoes in open test fields in Ireland.

Were these good decisions or bad ones, and how would an ordinary person decide the merits of these moves? And what would you need to know to assess the value or danger of these decisions?

We face these kinds of decisions all the time in our daily lives.

Who do you believe, the majority of people who accept that human activity is driving climate change or the tiny fringe who say there is no such thing?

Last week we were told that thousands of houses here have water brought into their homes through lead pipes.

Is this a dangerous thing or of no consequence because we have been doing it for years. If you believe it is dangerous then why aren’t people making vigorous demands to have it fixed given the risks to public health. And if the government decided that lead was cheap and plentiful and said it was putting it back into the water service would you say no?

The unifying theme for all of these examples is that they have an underpinning science base, that decision-making information needed to take a view will come from having some level of understanding about the underlying scientific principles.

The big question is how do you get people who have no involvement in science to become interested and find out more about climate change or what happens to you if there are dangerous levels of lead in our water supply? How do you instil a better understanding of science in the general public?

Pressing reasons

There are pressing reasons for the public to understand the issues at some level, not least because of decisions made or not made by governments.

Do we trust them to do the right thing or do we keep them under constant scrutiny in case they take shortcuts, as successive governments have done in relation to climate change.

The EU thinks it is a big enough issue that it commissioned a major report on it, Science Education for Responsible Citizenship, releasing it only last week (August 10th). The EU Expert Group set up to prepare the report was chaired by Prof Ellen Hazelkorn, an academic based at Dublin Institute of Technology.

She is a policy advisor to the Higher Education Authority and the director of DIT’s Higher Education Policy Research Unit and has wide ranging experience in what happens here and in other member states in relation to the public understanding of science..

The report looks at our education system and how science is taught, considers other ways that people pick up an understanding of science outside of a formal educational context, and it makes recommendations about how to bring about change in this area.

She argues that people actually have a responsibility to understand these issues.

These problems may be outside of Ireland today but in our back yard tomorrow, for example as when Ebola came to Europe and the US. The Ebola virus did not care if it crossed a national boundary. And if it had spread into Ireland would we be satisfied with decisions being made by the Government if we don’t know what a virus is and why it might be a danger?

How many other great human challenges are out there waiting for a chance to change our lives? It could be an altered climate or mass movement of people fleeing drought and crop failure.

Having an informed public would be invaluable for ensuring the right kinds of decisions are made by government and its agencies.

We can always plead ignorance, but this doesn’t cut any ice in a court of law, and won’t in the face of societal challenges.