By Hamish Johnston
…and if so, is that a bad thing?
There was lots of talk this morning on various BBC outlets about whether the “elitist image” of science is putting off the public. The debate was inspired by a campaign launched today by the UK government that aims to get the public more interested in science.
The campaign seems to have chosen a rather odd group of people to argue that science is not elitist. According to the BBC they include mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (Oxford), chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Eton, Oxford) and TV naturalist David Attenborough (Cambridge).
Granted, the programme has also enlisted the self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal and author Bill Bryson – both of whom have achieved great success (partly thanks to science) without a university degree.
But is science elitist? I suppose it is in the sense that one must study hard to become a scientist — and someone from an elite background is more likely to have the resources and parental backing to succeed academically.
Also, the practice of science is elitist in the sense that we all know who the top scientists in our fields are — and these individuals are often treated with great reverence.
But let’s not forget that whatever their background, members of the scientific elite worked hard for their success — indeed, science is one of few professions where it is very difficult to be a fraud.
That’s why I was a bit annoyed by Kathy Sykes of the University of Bristol, who declared on BBC TV this morning “You don’t have to be a genius to be a scientist”. I suppose she is technically correct, but I think her statement is rather flippant given the high degree of intellectual rigour displayed by scientists.
Do the public think science is elitist? The UK’s science minister Paul Drayson has said so. But according to a poll commissioned by one of his departments, only 3% of Britons believe scientists have “the most influence on our daily lives”. So if science is an elite, it is an impotent one.
Finally, one needs to ask if people eschew science because they perceive it as elitist? I think we only need to look at lawyers — perhaps the most elitist of professions — who as fictional characters permeate popular literature, film and television. And law schools seem to have no trouble attracting students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
So maybe elitism is not such a bad thing?