Professor Dame Anne Glover, in giving the Institute of Food Science & Technology 2016 lecture in London last month, made a passionate call for scientists to put their heads above the parapet in areas that were unlikely to make them popular.
It could also, potentially, leave them open to attack by the media and some lobby groups that were anti-science and not willing to accept the benefits that science brought to society.
“We must call out when science and evidence is being misused,” said Glover, vice principal external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen and formerly a chief scientific advisor to José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, between 2012 and 2014.
“We need to raise our voice when this happens, because if we don’t do it, who else is going to do it,” said Glover. “We are the best possible people to do it. I think it is an obligation.”
Governments need knowledge and evidence-based science on which to base their policies, she said.
But, while the EU was “utterly outstanding” at science, engineering and technology, it wasn’t always very good at translating that into knowledge that offered a positive impact for our citizens, she argued.
The trust of people in politicians is not high, said Glover. Instead, they base their opinions and beliefs on what those in the media and others say, she added.
Unfortunately, these sources frequently misrepresent the facts and tend to be very selective in their use of scientific evidence, she argued.
‘A broken system’
“If we don’t fix this, we have a broken system,” she warned. “Evidence evolves over time, but it doesn’t change from one government to the next.”
Part of the problem was that our educational system tended to make young people focus on scientific specialisms at too early an age, she said. This led to them being less well versed in other softer skills, such as the ability to communicate with non-specialist audiences.
“People tend to criticise scientists quite fiercely for our inability to communicate,” said Glover.
“So, there is a bit of a problem with our educational system. This is a failure in you become an expert in an area of science but you can only communicate it to other people just like you.”