Get public to start 'liking' science: NTU

Get public to start 'liking' science: NTU
Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Despite the largely positive response of people here towards science and research, more should be done to bridge the gap between the public and the scientific community, said Nanyang Technological University (NTU) researchers.

Scientists could, for instance, leverage on social media platforms to explain their work or publicise new research findings. These were recommendations made by NTU researchers, Associate Professor Shirley Ho and Assistant Professor Juliana Chan, following a survey on people's views towards science and technology issues in Singapore.

The study, a first of its kind, involved close to 1,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents who responded to 80 questions online. Slightly over half of the respondents were aged between 35 and 54.

While it found that most respondents supported government funding for research and felt it would help keep the economy competitive, it also showed uneven scientific literacy among the respondents.

While over 80 per cent knew that the centre of the earth is very hot, many were unaware that antibiotics are effective only against bacteria, and not viruses. Also, while over 80 per cent wanted to engage directly with policymakers, only about 58 per cent wanted to speak directly with scientists.

"It is possible that the general public may be intimidated by scientists and their complex scientific jargon," said Prof Chan who is also editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine, a print and online science and technology magazine about research and development in Asia. She added: "In general, the science communications landscape is very underdeveloped in Asia - scientists don't tweet, write blogs, or write books for the layman, and there are very few science magazines and professional science writers to help bridge the gap between scientists and the man on the street."

Prof Ho said more respondents may have indicated their preference to engage with policymakers because there are more avenues for them to do so such as Meet-the-People Sessions and social media.

Scientists who use social media to expand their reach include world renowned American physicist Michio Kaku, who has also appeared on many TV shows, speaking about galaxies and physics. The Jane Goodall Institute, founded by prominent primatologist and animal rights activist Jane Goodall, is also active on social media.

While local scientists may not have invested as much in having social media sites of their own, organisations like the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) as well as Science Centre Singapore have programmes to reach out to the public. For example, since last month, A*Star has been conducting talks by its own scientists so that the public can better understand science and how it improves lives.

Topics include "How private is your online personal data?" and how using computer 3D modelling can help diagnose heart disease.

Science Centre Singapore chief executive Lim Tit Meng said there is a moral obligation for scientists to share the outcome of their scientific research and development with the public as they are using large resources to do their work. "More significantly, we want to make the public value and appreciate science and the creative power made possible with STEM (science. technology, engineering and mathematics)," he added.

This article was first published on November 20, 2015.
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