"Any lay person interested in science can read New Scientist"

New Scientist

"Scientists have a duty to tell the public what they are doing... " Jeremy Webb, Editor of the New Scientist. — Photo: Sandeep Saxena

"Scientists have a duty to tell the public what they are doing... " Jeremy Webb, Editor of the New Scientist. — Photo: Sandeep Saxena  

Photo: Sandeep Saxena

SCIENCE HAS become specialised and the net result is that it has got fragmented. "Today scientists themselves are unable to talk with each other," said Jeremy Webb, Editor of the London based New Scientist magazine. "Our job is to make it simple." It has indeed lived by its commitment going by the reputation that the weekly magazine enjoys both within the scientific community and lay readers. It is popular science writing at its best.

"Any lay person interested in science can read New Scientist," he pointed out. "We actually target 16-18-year-old children. There is nothing in it that these students can't understand," he emphasised when he was in Chennai recently.

But Mr. Webb has come to realise that there are some subjects and areas that the readers seem to enjoy reading more. Medicine, health and biology top the list, closely followed by environment and ecology. "We cover cutting edge physics too in the features section," he said. "Physics is really fascinating. Black holes, neutron stars and quantum physics are truly mind-boggling. Readers just love them."

If physics fascinates readers, can chemistry be far behind? Chemistry students and researchers may love their subject. But Mr. Webb's experience has been otherwise. "It is really difficult to make chemistry exciting," he confessed. "Chemistry is one of the failings of New Scientist." The net result is that less and less of chemistry finds its way in to the magazine.

Making chemistry exciting might be a tough calling, but can readers who adore physics abhor chemistry? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. "We sell more copies if we have physics on the cover. But if it is chemistry, nobody picks up the magazine," he explained.

Consumer preference is again the factor why most newspapers devote more space to highlight news relating to medicine and health. Renowned newspapers around the world are no exception. "This works on the basic principle of `news you can use,'" he explained.

According to the Editor, people are more concerned in knowing what science and technology can do for them. "I really want scientists to think about it. They rarely think about the implications of their work for the everyday public," he lamented.

If thinking about the implications of their work to a common man is missing many a time, making their findings known to the public is a far cry in some countries. "You raise your personal standing and the institution's before the public when articles are published in newspapers and New Scientist," he noted. "And the scientists have a duty to tell the public what they are doing."

Consequences of such a lapse can be serious at times. "Unwillingness of the scientists to go out and tell the public is one of the reasons for the GM failure. Scientists are more than happy to stay in the lab," he said.

Coming at the tail end of the BSE crisis when millions of cattle were killed in human interest, Europeans were in no mood for any new technology that tampered with their food. It was a no to GM technology. "Europeans just wanted organic food. Any food that was not tampered with," he reflected. Wrong findings (against GM technology) by some scientists only aggravated the situation.

"The damaging results of Pusztai's experiment with potatoes did not stand scientific scrutiny. But his experimental results (made public before publication) had a huge impact," he noted. Claims by GM producers citing examples from many countries where such crops were grown did not help the cause. But what settled the issue was the three-year study undertaken by the British Government. Unfortunately, the results were not in their (GM producers') favour.

The study found that GM crop offered no economic value for consumers. GM maize was the only crop allowed to be grown but with a caveat — compensation to be paid to farmers growing conventional maize crop in case of any damage. "No GM crop is grown in Britain today," said Mr. Webb pointing out the result of the study.

It was a recent example of the power that the public wields. "As people found out more and more on GM, they trusted them less and less. It was the last nail in the coffin," he emphasised. If GM crops are indeed bad for health, how does one justify the fact that millions in the U.S consume them?

According to him most Americans just do not know what they are eating, though a majority of them would not like to consume GM food. According to him, the real failure of the technology was the way it was introduced.

R. Prasad in Chennai

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