It can be tough being a member of ‘the public’. Imagine for a moment that you are on your lunchbreak and, being the responsible British taxpayer that you are, you decide to have a quick look at how your really quite-significant investment in the Royal Bank of Scotland is getting on. About half-way through the 445-page Annual Report, after several pages of mystifying columns of numbers allegedly representing the bank’s accounts, you find the following statement:
“Intangible assets that are acquired by the Group are stated at cost less accumulated amortisation and impairment losses. Amortisation is charged to profit or loss over the assets’ estimated economic lives using methods that best reflect the pattern of economic benefits and is included in depreciation and amortisation.” [RBS Group Annual Report, 2010:279]
At this point, you could be forgiven for forgetting about your attempt to become an informed citizen and spending the remainder of your lunch break on Facebook. However, unperturbed, you decide instead to catch up on the latest news from the world of science by browsing through Nature, a journal with the purported aim of ensuring “that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life”. Here, in the abstract of a lead article, you learn that:
“… cardiac ion-channel expression and QT-interval duration (an index of myocardial repolarization) exhibit endogenous circadian rhythmicity under the control of a clock-dependent oscillator, krüppel-like factor 15 (Klf15).” (DOI:10.1038/nature10852)
Failing to see what on earth this has to do with your daily life, you give up, and start thinking about what’s for dinner.
Of course, it would be a rare member of the public who went directly to source for their information about business or science – such sources simply aren’t accessible to those without specialist knowledge and, often, a technical dictionary to hand. Instead, most of us rely on the mainstream media for our information, tacitly assuming that a diligent and well-versed journalist has done the hard-work of deciphering the financial or scientific facts for us. But how reliable is this process of translation? And what happens when the different dialects of science and business come together in a single story?
In his bestselling book Bad Science, Guardian columnist and author Ben Goldacre disputes the claim that scientific information is neutrally disseminated to the public, arguing rather that this process of media translation severely “undermines and distorts science”. “My basic hypothesis is this”, he says: “the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour”. There may be an element of truth to this argument. While a number of professional science communicators do have science backgrounds, there are undoubtedly many who do not. Even those of us who do may struggle to decipher technical material when operating outside of our own discipline. However, even for those journalists who are ‘bilingual’ and able to speak the languages of humanities and of science, very few are also fluent in the language of finance, leading to damaging over-simplification when it comes to the business of science.
Goldacre himself, an extremely successful public commentator on science, offers an excellent example of this process at work. Like many, Dr Goldacre is not a fan of the global pharmaceutical industry – he suggests simply that drug-makers are “evil”. While much of his criticism is valid, his characterisation of the entire industry as knowingly corrupt cheapens his argument, and, in his words, “undermines and distorts” business in exactly the way that he disparages humanities graduates for doing in the context of science writing. Indeed, in focusing on the sector’s negative practices without considering in detail the commercial factors driving this behaviour, Goldacre could easily be accused of wearing his ignorance of financial matters “as a badge of honour”. More importantly, he reinforces a public suspicion of the life sciences industry that is ultimately damaging to science itself.
Both science and business rely on public trust, and the public currently hold both in low regard. Two 2011 Ipsos MORI polls investigating public confidence in these fields revealed that only 47% of respondents believe that the information they receive about science is generally true, whilst a third do not believe that British business generally behaves in an ethical way. In other words, to many, science is untrustworthy and business is immoral. Revealingly, when science and business join forces, public confidence was found to sink even lower, with only 56% of poll respondents trusting scientists working in industry to follow the appropriate rules and regulations, compared to 83% for scientists working in universities.
So, evidence suggests that the public perceive science to be at its least trustworthy when it attempts to turn a profit. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, science and business are intimately linked, and in these times of fiscal belt-tightening it is increasingly important for science and business to work together to regain public trust. Characterising all company executives as immoral cash-splashing-pinstripe-wearing-fat-cats is no more useful than stereotyping all scientists as Dr Frankenstein, and facilitating public engagement with both disciplines will be key to successful policy-making in an increasingly complex and resource-constrained world. Champions of science and advocates of big business need to start speaking the same language, and journalists with them, if the public is to be brought along on this journey.
Image: flickr | @Doug88888