Oxford Magazine, Fifth week, Trinity Term, 2008
Jerome Ravetz's article Publics, understandings and science (Oxford Magazine, week 0, Trinity Term,) raises important points about the future of the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. The implications go far beyond Oxford itself.
When this chair was founded in 1995, the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) was a fashionable movement. But the "deficit model" on which it was based is now seen as ineffective, and its credibility was undermined by some of its most eminent proponents, who saw PUS as a platform for the proclamation of atheistic materialism. Since the turn of the millennium, attitudes have shifted and PUS has been replaced in official circles with public participation or public engagement with science. The government-sponsored Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (chaired by Professor Lewis Wolpert) was disbanded in 2002.
Hopefully the new holder of the Simonyi Chair at Oxford will be sensitive to the need to engage, rather than convert, the public.
Charles Simonyi's manifesto for this chair makes it clear he is not in favour of appointing a populariser. As he put it, In some cases [popularisers] seduce less educated audiences by offering a patronisingly over simplified or exaggerated view of the state of the art or the scientific process itself While the role of populariser may still be valuable, nevertheless it is not one supported by this chair.