Scientists must engage - now more than ever

Carlos Frenk, director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University and chair of the Royal Society’s Public Engagement Committee, issues a rallying cry for scientists to engage with the public and stem the flow of misinformation in this digital age.

The first two decades of the 21st century have not lived up to the optimism with which the new Millennium was greeted. 

Humanity now faces existential risks which threaten, at the very least, our way or life and, at worst, the survival of our species: climate change – clear effects of which are now becoming apparent – and the onset of a sixth mass extinction including the collapse of the insect population and associated threats to food security. 

Yet, against this gloomy backdrop, science has been an agent for progress. Scientific advances have brought higher standards of living, dramatic improvements in health and life expectancy, a huge reduction in poverty across the world, and remarkable progress in our understanding of the cosmos. And it is science that will play a key role in addressing today's existential challenges.

One of the paradoxes of the 21st century is that, at a time when technology offers ordinary citizens access to information and data to an extent and at a speed unthinkable a few decades ago, there has been a disconcerting rise in misinformation, a shocking spread of falsehood and deception. 

More than ever before, scientists have a moral duty to champion evidence and rationality, to dispel myths and unfounded fears, and to expose attempts to deceive and mislead.

Many of these intrude into the world of science, such as claims that climate change is just a “hoax" or doubts about the efficacy and safety of vaccines against common diseases. (In 2019 the World Health Organization removed ”measles-free" status from the UK.)

This is where science communication and public engagement come in. More than ever before, scientists have a moral duty to champion evidence and rationality, to dispel myths and unfounded fears, and to expose attempts to deceive and mislead. 

To be a scientist is a great privilege, one that should encourage us to share with others the understanding that science brings, the insight that it enables into the mysteries and beauty of the world around us. 

We must spearhead the effort to marshal the immense resources available to modern societies to tackle the threats that we face. But scientists will not achieve anything on our own. At a time when it feels like politicians in many countries may be turning their backs to facts and evidence, scientists need citizens on their side. 

The 2018 Ipsos MORI Veracity Index found that 85% of Britons trust scientists, but scientists and science communicators must work to maintain that trust and build support through engaging the public in open dialogue. 

A good starting point is to listen to the views and concerns of those whom we seek to engage. Beyond that, engagement can take many forms and happen at many levels, from sharing perspectives with our local community, through participating in organised or media events, to influencing politicians and opinion makers. 

Surely, in the 21st century, access to objective and unbiased information about the natural world must be regarded as a democratic right. But it is not just a matter of principle: it is science and the support of science by the public that may literally save our planet.

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