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Experts make sense of science

Scientists hope to unravel the mystery of their work to the public

(Keystone Archive)

Communication experts from around the world have gathered near Geneva to discuss how to improve the understanding of science and technology among the public at large.

University professors, science journalists and directors of museums and science centres are holding a three-day conference at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory.

Paula Catapano, spokeswoman for CERN, said one difficulty was that the world of pure research was far removed from the realities and preoccupations of everyday life.

She said another problem was jargon. "Scientists are very specialised in their subjects and they have developed a language of their own, so the first main barrier is terminology. It is too complicated for the general public."

Catapano cited the example of prions, the abnormal proteins or infectious agents, believed to cause BSE and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

"The word prion is an example of specialised terminology. How many people know what it means and yet it's a key word in the BSE debate."

The communication professionals meeting at CERN are convinced that the public must have a better understanding of scientific issues so they can form their own judgement on key topics.

"The citizens of today have big challenges," said Catapano. "They have to decide on subjects where the scientific background is absolutely crucial."

Scientists, she said, had to be aware of what people want to know and the best language to communicate it. However she insisted that learning about science need not be hard work.

"There are plenty of science centres and science museums around the world and they can present the scientific issues of the day. Not everyone has to become a mathematician or an astrophysicist. You can understand the issues in a simple way and also with a lot of fun."

by Vincent Landon


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