Popular science books have never been more important

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The writer is president of the Royal Society

Science is increasingly central to our lives — from its role in creating day-to-day objects such as the smartphones in our pockets, to the big challenges of tackling disease, addressing climate change, dealing with pandemics and focusing on biodiversity loss.

Many of the changes that the discipline brings are hugely beneficial, but they often come with potential downsides that demand public scrutiny. Will artificial intelligence take people’s jobs or subvert elections with fake news? How fast can we practically transition to a net zero economy? 

For the crucial public debate that is needed on all this to take place, we must have a scientifically literate population. Against a backdrop of widespread scepticism and misinformation, intellectual curiosity and the ability to understand the rudiments of science are paramount. 

But there is a divide between the scientifically minded and those who choose not to engage with science. I spent 30 years as an academic teaching how to reason rigorously, based on data — assessing the uncertainty of what you don’t know, in light of what you do.

The insight of this scientific method drove me to be an advocate for evidence-based policymaking, which I carried into a role in government. There I sat in meetings with ministers — who did not have a science background — who said that evidence-based decisions were not what they were about. They were about values-based policymaking.

This really does matter. For example, during the pandemic I had to publicly call out the government for their mantra of simply “following the science”.  I spoke out to mitigate the risk that scientists would be drawn into a blame game by politicians, whose role it was to make the important decisions on Britain’s coronavirus strategy. Their approach presented “the science” as having all the answers — a fundamental failure in understanding how the discipline works, and the uncertainty that is inherent in cutting-edge research.

It saddens me that our culture now views science as difficult, which discourages many from taking an interest in it. A British Science Association poll recently suggested that only around a third of 14- to 18-year-olds finds scientists inspirational or consider the subject to be relevant to their lives. 

In fact, science is woven through every aspect of our existence and people from all walks of life and of all ages should be able to access it easily. The invention of the printing press was crucial to the Enlightenment because it democratised knowledge. So, in this increasingly science-centred world, the same attention should be given to popular science writing as is given to other forms of literature. 

Good science writing plays a fundamental part in increasing access to the discipline. The latest thinking on problems that people really care about — be they climate change, pollution or health — should be discussed in cafés and pubs across the land. And often an understandable book is what helps this to happen.

Our Trivedi Science Book Prize is the only one in the world dedicated to popular science writing. This is because we believe it provides a vital link between the expert scientific community and the public, communicating pioneering but often technical research to mainstream audiences.

Books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which was shortlisted for the prize in 1989, was written for readers who had no prior knowledge of physics and has since become a universally recognised text on cosmology.

Democratising science has never been more important. There are so many scientific stories to be told that help us better understand ourselves. A society equipped with a solid understanding of the issues of the day is a society more able to respond to them in a prescient and pragmatic way. 


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