Making a date with science

May 27, 2009

Science communication is all about explaining science, and how scientists work, to audiences that wouldn’t normally be drawn to the subject. But all too often, science journalism targets audiences that are already turned on to science, so it is refreshing to see a piece of work that will draw in other audiences while continuing to make some serious points.

This was achieved last weekend in a Sunday Times piece by Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe on the use of DNA tests for assessing romantic compatibility. I think the story strikes a good balance between being based around a subject of wide interest (who isn’t interested in finding the perfect partner?), and communicating the science and its implications. Although the general tone of the article is light-hearted, it covers some serious issues. How should scientists balance the open publication of their findings for scrutiny by the scientific community, with the more stringent confidentiality needs of commerce? How can we be sure our genetic data won’t be misused? The blend works well and the science is accurate (and supported by experts). I am sure many people who wouldn’t normally read a science article have read this and have learned some science important for their life. They have also learned something about the way science operates and interfaces with society which is important too and rarely covered in the mainstream media. Definitely worth a read.

2 Responses to “Making a date with science”

  1. Tim Jones Says:

    Must be good fodder for at least one of the new DIUS expert groups! (seriously).

    Also struck me that there will never be 100% approval of the balance re ‘news values’ for news’ own sake and scientific content; look at the comments. As an aside, I noticed even Jared Diamond has been getting it in the neck recently on that score.

    I seem to be mixing these days in circles that touch more the university funded ‘public’ research – where the norm is indignation and horror that anything should be kept under wraps. I see much less debate and acceptance of the commercial realities of private / industrial research; when I worked in private R&D I’d have got fired for talking to the press (ok – say that in grumpy old man voice if you will).

    And, dare I say, that is somehow linked to the recent angst – in some quarters – towards the Govts’/Research Councils’ recent statements around projects justifying themselves on economic grounds.

    On a lighter note, re the ST article, I’ll vouch that smell is not the best criterion for life long partner selection; but you can have a lot of fun finding that out.

    • stevenhill Says:

      I think you are right that the issue of openness is important in the relationship between academia and business. Having said that I don’t think academia is actually as open as some would have you believe, especially in intensely competitive research areas.

      Anyway, in my opinion Hunt-Grubbe makes an important point: demonstrating the effectiveness of the method through scientific publication and scrutiny would also make business sense. It would establish the credibility of the technology.

      In a more general sense, I wonder whether the moves towards open innovation approaches may actually go some way to helping bring together the more open culture of academia and the naturally more cautious research culture in business.

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