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BY THOMAS K. GROSE
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE PRATT
FEATURE: A LEVEL HEAD

A LEVEL HEAD

Kathy Sykes, professor and BBC star, fosters a rational debate between scientists and the British public.


BRISTOL, England – British papers recently were filled with the kind of “frankenscience” stories that make Kathy Sykes cringe. Parliament was preparing to vote in favor of allowing medical research using human-animal hybrid embryos to bioengineer stem cells. Leaders of Britain’s Roman Catholic Church charged that the legislation would lead to “monstrous” experiments comparable to those conducted under Hitler’s Third Reich. Scientists angrily countered that church officials were grossly misleading the public.

“It was just the kind of debate we should be avoiding,” Sykes says. Discussion over science should not — and need not — be so overheated, she adds. And Kathy Sykes is someone who ought to know.

Although she’s most familiar to millions of “telly” viewers as a star of two BBC-TV science programs, that’s not her day job. Since 2002, Sykes has held the Collier Chair in the Public Understanding of Science and Technology at the University of Bristol, where her mission is to help scientists, engineers, and policymakers do a better job of communicating with the public, and to help popularize and demystify science.

That’s a daunting task. Today scientists and engineers are developing technologies to help thwart major threats to our well-being, from global warming to terrorism. And research in such areas as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering verges on breakthroughs in everything from medicine to robotics to clean fuels. But many of those potential advances could also be used for destructive purposes, and some — like those hybrid embryos — involve complex ethical issues.

It’s no secret that scientists are close to creating life from scratch in a lab. So, what are the ramifications? If ever there were a time when the public needed to fully grasp the consequences — both good and bad — of evolving technologies and to make intelligent decisions about them, it’s now. But that requires credible information communicated by knowledgeable sources.

Sykes believes that can happen, though it will take a major effort. That’s why a couple of years ago she helped organize a dialogue on stem cell research among members of the public, scientists, and policymakers. The public participants questioned experts on the specifics of the research; the experts listened and responded to the concerns. Initially, Sykes says, many people were wary of the research. But in the end, most thought it should go forward, as long as it was tightly regulated. That’s a result that beats lurid headlines, she says, and it demonstrates that ordinary people are more sophisticated than they’re given credit for when it comes to understanding scientific risks and rewards.

Matthew Barrett, a BBC executive producer who has worked with Sykes, thinks there’s no one better at fostering dialogue between scientists and the public: “She’s really exceptional as a communicator and in her approach to science.” He adds, “She’s tremendously open-minded,” which enables her to treat unscientific points of view fairly and without being dismissive.

TALKING THE TALK


Sykes, 41, developed her enthusiasm for spreading the science gospel while in rural Zimbabwe. She headed there to teach high school after getting her master’s degree in physics. “I discovered a real delight in communicating science, especially to people who were very different from me,” she says. When she returned to Bristol to earn her Ph.D. and do research in biodegradable plastics, the desire to communicate stayed with her. In her free time, she gave talks to schools and women’s groups and helped set up a program to encourage girls to go into science. Once Sykes got her doctorate, her passion for bringing science to the general public won out over her love of research, and she became director of science at a hands-on science center in Bristol.

“It seems crazy that you can do engineering without understanding something about the human beings that you are engineering things for.”
– Kathy Sykes

In 2002, she took the science chair in public engagement at Bristol University on a part-time basis. When the school made it a full-time post in 2006, she got the job. Sykes, who hopes eventually to develop and teach classes and oversee graduate students, is currently working with social scientists at 15 universities around the country on a project to “change the culture of the institutions” and make public engagement an integral part of being a scientist. They’re also doing research on the project itself, examining how it affects not only the academics and their institutions, but the public, as well.

Sykes continues to codirect the Cheltenham Science Festival, which she established in 2002, but she spends much of her time trying to persuade scientists and engineers to converse properly with the public. Many are happy to lecture, speaking enthusiastically about their work. Not so many are good at engaging in actual conversations with nonscientists, however. That’s too bad, says Sykes, who believes that academics would do better research if they were more attuned to public concerns. And paying more attention to those concerns could also help researchers avoid unnecessary detours.

She points out that many scientists were “really shocked” by the negative public reaction to genetically modified foods in the United Kingdom, which led to a slowing down of research in that area. That’s an outcome that might have been avoided had researchers taken the time to better explain their work to the public and been more willing to listen to, not dismiss, popular concerns, she argues.

Moreover, Sykes adds, if scientists were more sympathetic to public opinion, it could improve their popular image and make science a more attractive career option for students: “Scientists and engineers standing up and talking in ways that are baffling or arrogant only turns people off.” Likewise, Sykes realizes that her research work with social scientists can turn off some engineers and scientists.

“They can be a bit sniffy about social scientists,” she admits. But just because some things are harder to measure doesn’t mean they’re not worth studying, she says; understanding what makes us tick should be important to practitioners of the hard sciences, too. “It seems crazy that you can do engineering without understanding something about the human beings that you are engineering things for.”

ON THE TELLY


KATHY SYKES' BOOKHer busy academic life notwithstanding, Sykes’s most high-profile work is done before the TV cameras. The BBC shows “are a really nice part of my portfolio,” she says. “They are about trying to popularize science.” Beginning in 2000, she did three seasons of Rough Science, a Science Guy meets Survivor-type reality show, in which teams of scientists are sent to harsh regions of the world and challenged to use their know-how.

In one episode, she used her skills to engineer a microscope out of saucepan lids and some glass she had melted. Configuring the glass proved a tough chore: She had to make a furnace, then tend it far longer than she’d anticipated, stretch the melting glass into thin tapers, and finally, mold it into a small, spherical blob. The finished product looked awful, Sykes admits; but it worked well enough to magnify a mosquito. Her three years with Rough Science took her to California’s Death Valley, New Zealand, and Zanzibar, among other locales.

This year, Sykes is hosting her second season of Alternative Therapies, which, as the title suggests, is a look at alternative health remedies, such as acupuncture and hypnosis, that combines scientific skepticism with an open mind. For example, her show on reflexology debunked most of its practitioners’ quasi-scientific claims. But it did note that recent research on human touch reveals that it could have a powerful, calming effect on the brain. In other words, reflexology may have some beneficial effects, though not for the reasons advanced by its promoters. While Britain’s science community loved Rough Science because it showed science in action, a “very small but very loud” faction has complained that her new show isn’t harsh enough on alternative therapies. She sighs and says, “There are scientists out there who hate you even looking at” such approaches.

Given her scientific grounding and well-regarded TV shows, one might expect that Sykes would be an excellent role model for girls considering careers in science, but she squirms uncomfortably at the mention. Role models can be exceedingly important, she says, “but I don’t set myself up to try and be one.” Rather, she suggests that more women would be attracted to the physical sciences “if scientists and engineers got better at talking about what we love about what we do, the passion we have for it, as well as the values that drive us.”

And that’s Sykes’s message: Science can advance more readily and be more beneficial if scientists improve the way they reach out and talk with — not at — the public. Much is at stake, she insists. If there’s a communications breakdown and if debates turn into shouting matches, then bad decisions on very important issues will very likely be made. Or, as Sykes puts it, “We can do it wisely and do things that genuinely help people; or we can do it recklessly and do some serious damage.”

 

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 

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