SCIENCE AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Number 1, 1986. Sir Alec Merrison, ed. The Royal Society, London, 1986.
With this new journal, the Royal Society is entering the lists of organizations determined to contribute to public understanding of science and of the consequences of science.
The journal, to appear once a year, is intended to contribute to the Society's “responsibility . . . to scientists and the public . . . as expositor of the one to the other.” It has a practical objective as well: to show how “greater understanding of the concepts of science and technology can lead to better individual and corporate decision-making.” Ambitious goals indeed.
Science and Public Affairs is a collection of lectures mainly by Fellows of the Society on interesting but disparate topics ranging from the hazards of nuclear power to the marketing of technology. Only one, by Lord Sherfield, provides a view of science and scientists by a non-scientist. It is a thoughtful personal memoir by a major British public figure whose career was centrally concerned with many different aspects of science and technology policy in the United Kingdom. All the analytical pieces are informative and successfully targeted at an intelligent lay audience. Several deal with one or another aspect of industry-technology interactions; very few deal with particularly controversial subjects, such as the hazards of nuclear power.
This first issue of the journal, which strikes this Anglophile as quintessentially British, raises some important questions. The pieces are articulate and predict-ably well written (though clearly intended to be delivered orally), but the journal makes little attempt to reach out to the public in a way that would highlight controversies and focus discussion. Rather, the Society appears to be saying that it has carried out its responsibility by offering relevant material at hand; the public is responsible for finding and using what is presented. The journal will find it hard to make much headway in meeting its formidable goals with this rather aloof style, especially if it appears only once a year. But perhaps the Royal Society knows its intended audience better and is taking the right approach. The goals are important enough to hope it is successful.
Skolnikoff is director of the Center for International Studies, MIT Cambridge, MA 02139.