“Human history,” said H.G. Wells, “becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” That was in 1920, but his words are more relevant than ever.

Commenting on the planned increase in spending on research and school science announced by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, the President of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, said on Tuesday: “Reversing [the previous government’s under-investment] in school laboratories is essential if we are to provide high-quality school lessons to future generations of pupils, teaching them that science is about asking questions and testing ideas, not boring memorization.”

Science education is an issue to which May is committed. In September last year, he told an audience of pupils and teachers at the Science Museum in London that science was a creative subject demanding imagination and ingenuity.

“Science will become increasingly important throughout your lives, and you will be asked for your opinion on a range of issues that involve science, from which food you eat to whether we should use nuclear power, from global warming to which weapons our armies should use.

“If you want to make your decisions based on all the facts, and acknowledging the uncertainties, then science really is the key — it can open doors for your career, but more importantly it can also open your mind,” said May.

With a recent Kyoto University survey showing that bachelor of art graduates in Japan who are skilled in mathematics and science earn higher salaries than those who are not, money is certainly one incentive to learn about science. Kazuo Nishimura, who directed the Kyoto study, said the earnings gap — as much as 930,000 yen a year in the case of those good at mathematics — comes from advantages conferred by being able to think logically. But as May emphasized, understanding science is more important than making money from it. In times of BSE, stem-cell technology and possible human cloning, the ability to make informed decisions is crucial.

Kenji Makino, professor at Tokyo University of Science, agrees.

“Basic education at middle and high schools should be encouraged much more. And for the general public we should convey the information that scientific literacy is necessary for daily life.”

Makino, who is also president of the Japanese Association of Science and Technology Journalists, and who for 30 years wrote on science for the Mainichi Shimbun, knows better than most about the public understanding of science.

Despite the high-tech image that Japan has overseas, Makino said that science is poorly understood here. “Judging from several opinion polls, the scientific literacy of the general public in Japan is lower than in many countries. I don’t want to believe it, but it is a fact.”

And without being well-informed about science, the public can’t evaluate the way the media is presenting it.

I spoke to Makino after a lecture on science and the media last week by Massimiano Bucchi, a sociologist and historian of science from the University of Trento, Italy. Bucchi has conducted extensive surveys on the public attitude to science, and on newspaper reporting of major science news stories in Britain and Italy, such as the supposed confirmation of the Big Bang hypothesis for the origin of the universe, the BSE crisis in Britain and the GM foods controversy.

He found that there is a general tendency to report science in “news flash” form and that more in-depth coverage of science tended to be “ghettoized,” confined to a special section. The problem with this, Bucchi observed, is that it means that informative, popularized stories on science only reach those who are already interested in science. Because news editors are after eye-catching headlines, the rest of the general public only hear about controversial science issues.

Moreover, for stories on biomedical science (an area often closely connected with public health, such as GM foods), Bucchi’s newspaper surveys found that the possible harmful consequences were emphasized over the potential benefits of research.

What does the public think of all this? Now’s your chance to have your say. If enough readers respond to the short survey that follows, I’ll report back.

* Where do you get your information about science issues — TV, newspapers, Internet, books?

* How do you feel about science reporting in general?

* When you think of science, do you think of “hard science” such as physics, or “soft science” such as medicine? What does the word mean to you?

* Do you trust the information you get from newspapers?

* Do you feel there is a difference in the reporting of science in the Japanese and foreign media?

* Do you feel adequately informed when evaluating current science issues?

* What sort of issues would you like to see reported?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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