An ivory tower is no public platform
An ivory tower is no public platform
Daily Telegraph - 24/01/2006
If laymen are to have informed views, scientists must listen as well as preach, argues Fran Balkwill

Ask children what they understand by the word "cell" and they are as likely to discuss prison and batteries as biology - even when their school folders might contain beautifully drawn images of the cellular structures in animals and plants.

This depressing insight into developing minds came from a survey of 900 children in the East End of London that also showed that children do not readily connect the word "cell" with their bodies or even with immunology, where white blood cells defend them against disease. And very few of them knew how cells made them grow taller and bigger.

But the findings of this survey by the Centre of the Cell are little to do with inner-city deprivation. After having talked to children in three continents and over 15 years, I can confirm that a child in Australia or South Africa is just as likely to have an impoverished view of how their bodies work, whether it is how a kangaroo grows by making more cells, not bigger ones, or what happens when they are attacked by fungi, viruses and bacteria.

As a cancer research scientist, I have done my bit to tell children about cell biology, immunology and disease. I have met them in bookshops, science museums and schools of the developed world, and in squatter camps, orphan villages and townships in Africa.

I know that children need to know more about how disease agents make them ill because they can benefit from this knowledge. In Cell Wars, our first immunology book for children, the illustrator Mic Rolph drew a wonderfully colourful, double-page spread of viruses, with a speech bubble explaining what disease they caused.

Talking with children and their parents, I found that this was the most popular part of the book. A child lying in bed with a cold or stomach bug seemed to take comfort in seeing a picture of the cause of their illness - the "enemy" that their immune system was fighting.

But I have also found that it is easy to send out the wrong message. The cell wars-style analogy can cause problems when communicating with sick children where fatal infections are a daily threat. Getting sick may be seen as a failure; somehow, the child did not fight hard enough. We called our first Aids book for African children Staying Alive - Fighting HIV/Aids, when the main reason for losing the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa is the lack of anti-retroviral drugs.

An HIV-positive mother in Cape Town told me that she had enjoyed reading the book and felt it would be helpful to her HIV-negative daughter, but there was one sentence that really worried her. I had written: "Babies can catch HIV from their mothers." This is, of course, true, but this mother feared that her daughter would think that she was in danger if her mother kissed her.

We also learnt that our portrayal of the "enemy" HIV was wrong. We had depicted the virus as a scary green monster, looking similar to the African masks we had seen. This was too frightening for the readers who had experience of the disease. Some imagined this monster attacking their insides (or their relatives). The second edition of the book is called You, Me and HIV and the viral images have been toned down.

Since I began my efforts to reach out to children, the Government and the science establishment has placed increasing pressure on scientists to tell the public what we are doing and why. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Scientists depend on public support for funding and have an obligation to tell society how that money is being spent and the potential impact of this research.

After all, science is all about communication. You cannot have a successful career in science unless you communicate well with your peers. In my field of translational (from bench to bedside) cancer research, a major part is establishing strong lines of communication with clinical colleagues, nurses, ethical review committees and patients.

But there is a problem. Scientists who spend time away from the laboratory to start a public dialogue usually receive only lip service for what they do. The scientific establishment has yet to come up with a way to reward scientists. I am not talking about payment, but recognition, in the endless scramble for research grants, that science communication is important.

Over the past 15 years, there has been a huge change in the attitudes of my peers. First, the talk was of PUS - public understanding of science - as if the public were no more than ignorant schoolchildren who had to be enlightened. The fuss over creationism in America (where it has been rebranded as Intelligent Design) shows that communication of basic ideas still has a role. However, we also need more emphasis on public engagement, trying to listen to what the public has to say about the future of science.

This change has been accompanied by recognition among most scientists that dialogue is important. But there is still a hard core who grumble about the need for this. Sometimes, this resentment is snobbery. Sometimes, it is jealousy that a colleague is in the public eye. Often, they portray engagement as defective at best, providing the public with only a tiny glimpse of the real science; a sensationalised, distorted and advocatory one at that.

This criticism is often true. But there is no getting away from the fact that it is still better to have tried than do nothing at all to bridge the gaps in understanding between the public and scientists.

A more serious criticism is that there is an unwritten premise in many science communication projects: the scientist is always right and their toils will always make the world a better place. But, of course, scientists are fallible. They can sometimes fabricate results, as in the South Korean cloning scandal. It is just as important for non-specialists to realise that science does not have all the answers and that there is so much more to find out.

The way to fix this impression is to listen as well as preach. When it comes to working out the limits of how far to go with genetic engineering or cloning, schools, museums and films such as Jurassic Park are not enough to outline what is possible, what is probable and how the public want to see research applied. We also need to determine what the public know already, what they want to know, what interests them most, and the prejudices and cultural sensitivities that may impact on any initiative.

To do this, we still need more recognition from the scientists and the science establishment that this effort is all worthwhile.

Fran Balkwill works at the Institute of Cancer Research and the UK Clinical Cancer Centre at Queen Mary, University of London. Tomorrow, The Daily Telegraph will celebrate her Royal Society Faraday Medal for communicating science. She is the co-author of "Cell Wars", "Germ Zappers" and "Microbes, Bugs and Wonder Drugs", aimed at children, and director of the Centre of the Cell in the Barts and the London, Queen Mary's Medical School