In recent weeks, Britain's Better Regulation Task Force report on scientific research regulation asked the Government to evaluate the risks associated with the development of Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies. The Government was also asked to prove its implementation of a specific policy to protect human, animal and environmental safety, were it to be threatened by the development of this emerging field of knowledge. These requests may sound rather alarming.
In the last few years, a continuous series of food alerts have caught the attention of the media and the public in Europe. First, eggs and pork contaminated with dioxins; then, "mad cow" disease, while, all along in the background, a battle against genetically modified plants has been in progress. These food alerts have had complex repercussions on the perception of risks associated with food production. Experts have often been divided over these issues, and the uncertainty of scientific data has been indicated on more than one occasion as one of the factors that influence risk perception. However, the most important factor seems to be undoubtedly the way in which the risk has been communicated (or not communicated) to the public. Therefore, risk communication analysis offers an excellent opportunity to understand the profound changes that are taking place in relations among the scientific community, mass media and other members of civil society now that they are fully aware that scientific and technological innovation, the real driving force of modern industrial society, is a source of development but also a source of risks which are not always acceptable. Within this different context, a debate open to all interested parties appears to have become a dire necessity for the "risk society", especially as far as food is concerned because food has extremely important psychological, ethical and cultural values.
Compared to expert-to-expert - or peer-to-peer - communication, the language of popular science is characterised by a wider use of figurative devices. This applies to all forms of verbal and non-verbal communication. Specialized texts are characterised by a restricted and rigorous lexicon both in spoken and - even more so - in written language. Namely, a widespread use of terms which are monosemic, unambiguous and non context-dependent terms, and a minimum amount of natural linguistic choices. The few polysemic, ambiguous and context-dependent words encountered in a scientific text are highly functional, since meaning is mainly conveyed through field-specific terms. The same rules apply to the iconography of a scientific text, where most pictures are graphs, diagrams or schemes. Their purpose is to give the reader a visual photo-like equivalent of the concepts discussed in the text. These images are all the more effective thanks to the use of colours, external references, highlighting and other devices, which make them functional to their explanatory purpose.
Terms such as gmo, genetic tests and pharmacogenomics, which were once used only by experts, belong today to everyday language. The new vocabulary of molecular biology shows an increase in the interest of society in scientific problems, and in particular the recent cultural supremacy of molecular biology. For all of us, the gene symbolizes progress and power, the hope of fighting incurable diseases, and the fear of terrifying genetic manipulations. These aspects become real events and characters in the Human Genome Project. But this great international project has also shown that the relation between science and society is changing. This event can actually be seen as a metaphor of science leaving academic laboratories to settle new areas of society. From economics to sociology, from epistemological discourse to bioethical debate, from medicine to basic research, in all these fields genome becomes the main topic of discussion and food for thought. Public attention to this international project has grown constantly throughout its development, and it peaked when science came into contact with the press.
In a brief article published by Science1 last October, British scientists stated that the expression "Public Understanding of Science" (PUS), which was traditionally employed in Anglosaxon societies to refer to the issue of the relationship between science, technology and society, is out-of-date. It should be replaced by "Public Engagement with Science and Technology" (PEST), a new acronym that clearly invites to reconceptualise the relationship between science and the public. The new approach involves the engagement of the public or rather the publics of science, through dialogue, in particular through an open and equal-to-equal discussion between scientists and non-experts that would enable non-experts to become the actual protagonists in the scientific decisions producing social effects.