VET’S DIARY: Meeting the difficult challenges of science

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THE challenges of being a scientist.

Last night, I watched the Horizon programme (BBC2, 9pm) presented by Sir Paul Nurse who has recently become president of the Royal Society, one of the oldest and most widely respected bastions of the principals of scientific research, writes Dominic Plumley.

The documentary explored modern society’s developing mistrust of science – concentrating mostly, though not exclusively, on the ‘hot potato’ that is man-made climate change.

Sir Paul put forward a number of reasons why he thought that the modern civilised person should have become so suspicious of science and scientific research – the common recurring theme being a problem of communication.

In the first instance, he questioned scientists’ ability to communicate their theories in a way that allows people to understand them. Inevitably, as the human race advances, rather ironically on the back of scientific progress, the science itself becomes more complex and further out of the comprehension of the everyday person.

Go back a couple of hundred years to one of the founders of modern physics, a gentleman called James Prescott Joule, and you find not a man who had spent years and years in academic institutes and research facilities but a brewer no less. Cutting edge science was being conducted by the pub landlord, well almost.

Although all of us are wrapped in an envelope that is the product of modern science – the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the food we eat, the phones we use, the TVs we watch, the iPods we listen to, the list is just about endless. In truth, we are more detached than ever from the technology that makes these things work.

On top of the problem of communicating their science in a way that allows us to at least understand the underlying principals, modern scientists also have to compete with the infinitely expanding availability of alternative information. Never before have we had such ready access to as much information of all kinds.

The internet, another product of science, is both a valuable tool and a dangerous weapon. Quite literally, anybody can put anything onto the internet.

Some parts of the web are better than others, however, if you type a subject into a search engine, the results you get could just as easily have been written by a madman as a professor (not to say that the two are mutually exclusive!) but with no distinction between the two views. With this in mind, it can be unwise to assume people have a basic understanding just because they have access to information.

The Horizon programme struck a chord with me as our profession is experiencing the same challenges described that are being faced by the scientific community in general.

It is not passed living memory where the diagnosis of ‘a chill’ was made because it was the extent of the vet’s knowledge and not an attempt to communicate the illness in a way that the client could easily understand. The importance of bed-side-manner is unquestionable, of course, but this has to be backed by sound professional competence.

Based on scientific research, huge strides in the understanding of the delicate physiology and intricate disease processes of our animal patients has meant that veterinary science has advanced enormously in the last two decades. Today, the diagnosis of complex conditions can present the clinician with a difficult challenge to ensure that communication with the client builds rather than erodes trust.

As already mentioned, the internet can be the most wonderful tool, however, confidence in the consensus view can easily be eroded with its injudicious use.

If you look hard enough you will always find a view that is the complete antipathy to accepted wisdom and so it is vital to take everything in context.

We are continually learning, hopefully we never stop, and scientific research is fundamental to that process. By using tools such as the internet, the learning process can be made both easier and also more widely available, which can only be a good thing.

However, it is vital that scientists (and vets are included in that broad church) maintain the confidence of the public at large.