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LONDON: Science — more powerful than at any time in history — has paradoxically made the world seem a more uncertain place, according to Sir Howard Newby, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Nasa can now land a probe on an asteroid. A geneticist can tell from the DNA in a strand of hair at birth whether a child will contract Huntington’s disease in middle age,” he will tell the world’s oldest science festival in Leicester.

“More generally it has been estimated that the sum total of scientific understanding in the past 50 years has been greater than in all previous history. Yet for all that we seem to know, the world appears to be an increasingly uncertain place.”

Sir Howard, chief executive of Hefce, the higher education funding council for England, has entitled his address “The dream of reason brings forth monsters”, after an etching by Goya. This haunting work captured the disappointment in early 19th century Europe that the liberal enlightenment of the 18th century had failed to produce a more just and open society. The paradox remains just as resonant today. The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 on New York and Washington had brought the question into sharp focus, Sir Howard said.

“If anything, we have succumbed to a lack of faith in the notion of social progress and a suspicion amounting to an assertion that the growth of knowledge does not guarantee human happiness — rather the reverse. An increasing proportion of the population seems to distrust rational inquiry to establish both the facts and the uncertainties; rather they prefer their instincts, or even to celebrate anti-intellectualism.”

This, in turn, had its impact on the scientists who were — they believed - pursuing research to make life better for as many as possible. Science did change the world, as the history of the 20th century showed only too clearly. But once the science community convinced itself that science was an external force acting on society, there was a danger that it would regard society itself — the wider public — as a mischievous irrelevance, something which hindered scientific progress.

The litany of recent alarms — nuclear power, overpopulation, pesticides and cancer, the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, cloning, genetically modified foods and so on — fuelled public anxiety. The pace of technological change created a sense of heightened uncertainty, even though the world was in reality a much less risky place for its inhabitants than 100 years ago.

“Risk, uncertainty, vulnerability, trust — this seems like a lexicon of the human condition as we move into the 21st century,” he said. ”Ever since the enlightenment we have been prepared to believe that human progress can be achieved via the pursuit of knowledge. Now there are many who have their doubts. The debate over risk is in part a debate over the contemporary state of the human condition.”

The scientific community had retreated from engagement with society, just as society at large had been excluded from the real world of the scientific method. The public felt reduced to the role of a hapless bystander, or at best the beneficiary of advances which the scientific community believed that it ought to want. The public once trusted scientists, and scientists could speak with authority. Now trust and authority were eroded.

“We are dangerously close to Goya’s nightmare of reason creating monsters here,” Sir Howard said.

The scientific community was beginning to engage with the public. The British Association festival (which will be visited by more than 4,000 schoolchildren and many parents) had been a forum for engagement for almost 170 years. But, Sir Howard argued, the public understanding of what science could and could not deliver had a long way to go.

“The public stands in awe of the products of recent scientific progress. But science is not magic, and the scientific community does not possess a collective magic wand. Modern science has not removed human fallibility.”—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.