British Society for Plant Pathology
25th Anniversary Celebratory Meeting

Imperial College, London 19th December 2006

Public understanding of plant pathology; what do the public know and what shapes what they know?

Tony Gilland, Institute of Ideas, London

"As the earth's population expands, and global climate changes, increasing demands are made on our limited cropping area. Ever present pest and pathogen populations continue to cause serious crop losses and, on a world scale, crop protection remains one of man's principal challenges." The BSPP and Education, A Career in Plant Pathology?, The British Society for Plant Pathology web site.

However important the work of plant pathologists may be it seems fair to say that the intricacies of plant pathology are not high in the public's mind. Whilst many a keen gardener may be familiar with some of the challenges posed by an array of plant pathogens, and some of the options available to combat them, the science of plant pathology is simply not a major issue of public concern. That said, what has become a far greater issue of public concern is the way we farm our food. From pesticide residues to genetic modification and organic
farming, debates have raged across the media and elsewhere about this issue and have undeniably had an impact on public perceptions of what science has to contribute to improving the way we grow our crops. How plant pathologists should respond to this situation is an important question for debate.

In addressing this question this paper will focus on two key problems. First, the drawbacks of our media dominated society where whatever does or does not get reported in the pages of the national papers is seen to have a defining impact on public life. Whilst the power of the media is important to recognise there is a real danger of underestimating the wide range of factors that shape public debate - not least of which is the clarity and sense of purpose that any community of professionals has about their work. This leads to the second key problem, defensiveness. Scientists are constantly being berated about the need to engage the public with evermore prescriptive guidance about the best way to do this. But the bigger problem is not so much how to communicate but what. Science has been on the back foot for far too long. The way to address this is not to worry about what the public does or does not know or think, but to insist firmly on the significant contribution science has to make to society and to alter the terms of the debate - at least that way 'the public' stand a fair chance of hearing more balanced and genuine debates about the issues from which they can make up their own minds.