By Helena S Davies
Science, like countless other specialist subjects and pursuits, is continually guilty of segregating itself into two groups: those that know and everyone else. Now this former group is persistently encouraged and chastised for ensuring that the group consisting of everyone else (otherwise known as the public) are kept informed and are (or at least are given the opportunity to be) educated as to what exactly it is that we know. I say ‘we’ at this point as my job description (and I know many will scoff quite openly at my use of the word ‘job’) is a PhD student of environmental nuclear biology, a description which, funnily enough, is not quickly rolled off the tongue by my grandmother at coffee mornings. I am simply circulated and discussed amongst my family and friends, outside of the science sector, as a nuclear scientist. And there it is; that separation again.
Arguably this is perfectly natural, we categorise people into groups every day of our lives, friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, undergraduates… However, being part of the nuclear sector, I have become increasingly aware of the sheer desperation that this particular industry has in pursuing the breakdown of this separation, because public distrust, with regards to nuclear energy, still lingers and, my word, does this not sit well. Of course there is justifiable reason behind this from the, not so historical, history of the industry (kindly refer to Google for a barrage of examples after typing “nuclear” into the search box where, today only four hits down, a link with the word “bomb” surfaces). Nevertheless this exact topic of public perception of the nuclear industry has come up at every conference, seminar, lecture and outreach programme that I have ever attended. In fact, as soon as I meet someone new and I’m asked about my work, the subject is brought into the fray. The reason I bring this up is because at these events, the most common response and suggested answer to improving the image of nuclear energy amongst the public is (drum roll please and baited breath as I am finally getting to the point of this article): education.
That’s right; apparently you still do not know what nuclear scientists know. However, why should you?! We do not expect and are not expected to know complex human anatomy before going in for surgery. The basics normally suffice for that: cut in the right place and you’ll be OK, cut in the wrong place and you might have some problems. Why isn’t a basic knowledge of the principles and concepts of nuclear energy enough? A basic education of this is certainly provided. Looking at the UK National Curriculum for science released in December 20141 and September 20132 , the principles of nuclear fission and also fusion are listed, in addition to the requirements for every 11- 16 year old residing in England to be taught about the atomic structure and energy sources, both sustainable and non- sustainable. I remember learning this myself 10 years ago, so it isn’t new. It seems wholly unreasonable and unrealistic to suggest that simply battering the public with more facts and figures, jargon busters and media friendly metaphors is the answer. From looking at our school education system alone I would say that actually most people are rather well informed on the subject.
As someone who really enjoys public outreach events and science in general (it’s getting me to shut up about it that’s the trick), I am certainly not saying that this current level of education should stop, nor that continuing to be open and informative about the nuclear industry and radiation in the environment is a bad thing. However, it seems foolish to believe that increasing education will equate to building trust. Science often suffers badly from this, a prime example being the issue with those against vaccinations as well as the respective problems in the nuclear industry. So if more educating is not the best course of action, what is? Improved science journalism? Improved communication skills from the industry? Perhaps toning down the hyper- awareness the nuclear power sector has in trying to alleviate fears and concerns would help? I used the word “desperation” earlier and this is not an emotion people warm to. However, these options will be discussed in more detail in a follow up article (I can tell you are enthralled at the prospect already)…
Kind Regards from just another brick in the wall.
1Department of Education. Science Programmes of study: key stage 4. National curriculum in England. December 2014. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study
2Department of Education. Science Programmes of study: key stage 3. National curriculum in England. September 2013. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study
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