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Interview with Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford where he holds the prestigious Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science and is a Fellow of New College. He is Senior Media Fellow at the EPSRC and has been named by the Independent on Sunday as one of the UK's leading scientists.

We caught up with Marcus on a bus to discuss public understanding and involvement in science.

Why is the Simonyi Chair for Public Understanding of science important?

For many people, science is a bit like a foreign country. They don’t really understand the language or culture. They are increasingly realising though that it is impacting on their lives and their country. It is more important than it ever was therefore that we have ambassadors who can go and communicate what is going on in the world of science. These ambassadors can show how science is going to impact on people’s lives and involve people in the decision process about how science interacts with society.

I think it shows the foresight of Charles Simonyi when he set the Chair up in the early 1990s for Richard Dawkins. He understood that we would need these roles and the evidence over the past decades is that he was right. The more that we can do to support scientists in creating links and dialogues between scientists and society the better.

You identify two roles for people in your position, educating the public and involving them in decision-making. What do you see as the difference between the two activities?

When this job was set up, it was very much in a climate of scientists telling the world about science; that was why it was called the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. There is more of an emphasis now on a two-way process. Society has something to say to scientists about what they want, what their worries are. Government and scientists need to enter a dialogue with society as a result.

But it is very important to recognise that you can’t have dialogue until you have understanding. The two are incredibly interrelated. Without proper understanding you can’t have informed debate. For people in this role, it’s a two-pronged thing - providing people with access to the science such that they can have a meaningful debate and then trying to facilitate that debate to get scientists listening to the concerns of the rest of society.

To what extent can you promote understanding as part of the involvement or is there a basic understanding you need before you involve people in the decision-making process?

That’s the trick of this thing, to engage people so that their understanding grows through the engagement. I’ve always said that mathematics and science aren’t spectator sports. You need to get your hands messy. That’s how we all learn about science; it isn’t a passive experience.

There is a risk though that simplifying gives rise to the notion of bias and that this can impact on the resulting public debate. How possible is it for a communicator to get past this perception of bias?

I wouldn’t link simplification to bias. I do agree though that it is a very important issue. The gulf between the scientific community and the public is partly because the public are still expecting 100% certainty from scientists on issues. Scientists have to be very honest about what they don’t know.

The public doesn’t understand the scientific process enough. This is almost where we need to start, explaining the role of experiment and gathering data, and how much confidence that gives you in your conclusions.

Scientists also need to be quite clear how much room there is for a different explanation. Of course, if a scientist believes in one particular model it’s their prerogative to speak up for that model. To be a good scientist though, they must qualify why there is still uncertainty in the model. Scientists aren’t naturally biased, but they will have theories that they will try to support by evidence. It’s this process which is being confused with somebody being biased.

Thinking back over the past ten years, what have been the key developments affecting the relationship between scientists and wider society? Why have we moved from your role being one of promoting understanding towards one of involvement in decision-making?

Key moments of crisis like BSE and GM have been important. This is because of the recognition that the crises arose partly because people didn’t have access to the information and a dialogue wasn’t happening. Scientists were seen as just foisting developments on society.

I would identify the Jenkin report as a key moment when scientists, scientific organisations and Government recognised that if we were going to have to do more than just produce the science, we were going to have to have ambassadors to explain what is going on. We would also have to understand the concerns of society too in order to put them into the mix as well.

We’ve been much more successful about people’s fears around nanotechnology, for example. If we hadn’t told people about the technology, then there would be lot of fear stories whipped up about it on a similar scale to GM. I think that this has been a good test case for demonstrating that you have to involve people in understanding the science. With dialogue and knowledge transfer you’ve got a chance to have a meaningful debate and decision about what you are going to do about these things.

I think all of the activities promoting public understanding that came out of the inquiry by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee have created a different climate. It is now more acceptable to do this role. Twenty years ago it was looked down upon; not seen as a proper part of your job. More and more that is changing; departments, heads of department and research councils are recognising this as an incredibly important part of scientists’ jobs that needs to be supported.

Looking forward, what do you think will affect public engagement in the next five years or so?

I think the real challenge is to find ways to get people helping out with doing science. There have been some really interesting projects getting people to help model climate on their computers so that they can feel like they are involved. A lot of it is gathering data and parallel processing projects where everyone can play a role. Finding more ways that we can access people’s interest in science is a growing idea within the science communication world. The next decade or so will be find ways to draw people in who think they can do science to actually get involved.

Your engagement work involves mass media, lectures, local events and books. What do you think the most important arenas are for engaging the public? Which spaces could we use better?

The important thing is to do as many as possible; variety is important. I have found that television is a very good way of reaching a huge audience very quickly. Given the chance, this is where I would put my efforts because I realise I can maximise my impact this way. I’ve got a big series coming up on BBC 2 next year about mathematics. It’ll be three 1-hour programmes where we find ways to engage the public in doing mathematics. We are really trying to find ways to use new media and to get people involved in doing things. It’s about getting people involved, getting their hands messy.

What are the likely implications on the relationship between science and society of events such as the recent climategate controversy?

Breakdowns in communication are always going to happen. We need to get as much positive out of them as we can. For example, the climategate case is the perfect example to demonstrate the process of doing science. It is very important to make clear that things are never as clear cut as we’d like them to be, especially for things as chaotic as the weather. We must use these moments, when things don’t quite work, to explain how science and the scientific community actually operate.

Do you believe it’s possible to engage the public in complex, contested areas such as climate science or genetic modification? Are some things too complex?

Like any language, it’s hard to get up to speed to read Dostoevsky in the original Russian without years of learning Russian and being immersed in the culture. However, I think there is a chance to give people a flavour of the novels through translation. This is the art of my sort of job. The real skill of a communicator of science is to highlight the essential points. Very often this is a real challenge to scientists because you have to understand your subject to a very deep level to be able to pick out the things that people need to understand to get them up to speed very quickly. For example, I wrote a book about prime numbers and the Riemann hypothesis – The music of the primes. My colleagues said it was a ridiculous thing to try to do it because it’s the most complicated thing in our subject. They questioned how on earth I was going to explain it to the general public. It was a real challenge to my own understanding of my own subject as I tried to distil it.

One has to recognise that some of this science is incredibly complicated and we aren’t expecting the public to come up with solutions to these things, but they can still appreciate them. However, none of them is too difficult that we can’t give an appreciation of what is involved, and the political and social issues that will be implied by the research.

You’ve talked already a bit about what makes a good science communicator. What advice would you offer a young scientist wanting to engage with the public?

There are a number of key things I think. The most important quality is empathy. Good communicators are those that can enter the minds of their audience. This is often quite difficult. However, audiences are very mixed. So, it’s important to understand that one thing will work for some but fail for others. I’ve always found that it’s always good to think of as many ways as possible because there are so many different audiences out there.

You can only learn this thing on the job. This means taking risks. You have to be very open to criticism and take that on board. It’s a much more fluid thing than doing science.

And, as I’ve said already, you need to know your subject deeply.

I think that it’s time for scientists to step up to the plate and not hide behind this ’it’s too difficult, you can’t engage’. Scientists should really test their understanding by trying to explain what they do.