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The Public Understanding of Science
Sharm El-Sheikh, Sinai (Egypt) 9 June 1998

Summary of Discussion

Background  Back to top

In the context of regional and international preparations for the World Conference on Science, the UNESCO Cairo Office sponsored the present special session within the framework of the Ninth International Conference of Science Editors organized on the theme of ‘Science Communication for the Next Millennium’. The Conference was hosted by the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology and was held at Sharm El-Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt from 7-11 June 1998.

UNESCO asked Dr Ahmed Shawki, an eminent professor in the topic area from Zagazig University, to prepare, coordinate and conduct the special session.

Opening  Back to top

The UNESCO Special Session was opened by Dr Adnan Shihab-Eldin, Director of UNESCO’s Cairo Office. He formally welcomed the participants before briefly recalling the objectives and other associated meetings of the World Conference on Science. He stressed the importance of the session’s specialized theme, as well as its relevance and relationship with the Conference’s main theme.

Presentations  Back to top

The following three topics were presented and discussed during this session:

  1. Cultural conceptions and science, reproductive technology: a case study (presented by Prof. Effat A. Badr, Professor of Genetics, Alexandria University)
  2. Combinatorialism: a new route for the role of science in innovation (presented by Prof. M. Raouf Hamed , Egyptian National Organization for Drug Control and Research)
  3. The paradigm shift in editors’ responsibilities (presented by Prof. M. Farid El-Asmar, Biochemistry Department, Faculty of Medicine, Ain-Shams University, Cairo, Egypt)

Summary of Discussion  Back to top

Following the three presentations, the session coordinator invited the participants to share their comments and views on both the presentations and theme of the session. Three participants – from Kenya, Nigeria, and India – shared their experiences and the results of case studies conducted in their respective countries.

The Kenyan participant informed the meeting that, in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, bi-annual workshops were organized bringing the medical professions together with journalists, the purpose of these workshops being to encourage journalists to write about medical issues under the guidance of medical academia. In her experience, a very fruitful discussion usually ensued.

The Nigerian participant informed the meeting of a programme in Nigeria called ‘Media from Agriculture’, which featured presentations about the most interesting research results in the area of agriculture. Journalists were encouraged to write simple scientific articles for the public and their articles were checked by scientists before they went to the publisher. The participant stated that there was a need for a public understanding of science, which should be vehicled by journalists.

The Indian participant voiced a similar concern. In India, most newspapers have pages for science. In addition, there are 3 or 4 specialized science magazines in English and Hindu. We must find a way to train professional journalists who are able to pick up on innovative achievements in science and translate them into a language suitable for the general public to understand without ambiguity, the participant added.

There appeared to be a general consensus among participants that, in developing countries, there is an urgent need for simplified scientific writing that is accessible to the general public. It was proposed that this be done by training journalists to write scientifically, in collaboration with scientific academia, in an overall attempt to popularize science.

A question was put to Dr. Effat Badr about the cost/benefit assessment of modern reproduction technologies and who is going to pay for it. For example, although Monsanto Company will definitely benefit from their research in this field of genetic engineering, the effect is expected to reduce biodiversity. Dr Effat answered by saying that it is society which is going to pay the cost. The point is that the public must be aware of this, in order to decide on the cost/benefit ratio of the impact of results of modern research. The effects may be long-term, she added, and there must be international guidelines for the negative impact of modern technologies on society.

‘Printed media will be entirely substituted by electronic media’ stated another participant from a developing country, ‘whereas printed journals will remain in developing countries’. Therefore, there must be a way to tap this new technology. In order to do so, people must be well-trained in the use of modern technology. Furthermore, magazines that deal with popular science are rare in developing countries in comparison to developed nations. For this reason, scientists in developing countries should begin to write for the general public.

Some participants objected to the idea of scientists writing for the general public, but agreed that scientists ought to assist journalists in fulfilling this task.

Elaborating on the consensus that seemed to be reached among participants from developing countries, one participant took issue with the fact that scientists are not interfacing with societies. ‘At present, scientists write for other scientists, not for the public’, the participant said, ‘and this is the reason for the general public’s negative stand towards science’. The participant added that a science communicator ought to be present, in order to address the masses and suggested that this issue be addressed at the next conference. ‘In the Arab region, particularly’, the participant continued, ‘we lack this very much.’

Many scientists have already begun to understand the need to speak to the public. In the view of one participant, scientists are university professors. Teaching first-year university students is, in fact, a form of science popularization (as we are just giving facts).

Another example given was that of technicians: due to their repetitive daily work, they have moved away from modern technology. We need to teach these technicians today’s science. It will be of great value to their career, as this is the main responsibility of scientists.

Conclusion  Back to top

A new breed of professional journalists able to pick up on innovative achievements in science and translate this information for the general reading public into simple and clear language appears to be what the participants call for. The production of such simplified and accessible scientific writing can be achieved through close collaboration between scientists and journalists.


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