Science and Society

News and views around the Science for All Group

Science for All Report and Supporting Documents

by Science & Society Team
Tuesday 9 February 2010 | 10:16am

The Group’s Report, Science for All, was published on 9 February 2010. It is available through the link below, along with a number of supporting documents. Discuss the report here by posting a comment at the bottom of this page.

Science for All – Final Report and Action Plan

Research commissioned by the Science for All Expert Group has fed into this report and can be downloaded below:

A review of the evidence base surrounding the value of public engagement by scientists

Aspects of science in UK culture

Public engagement map

Reward and recognition of public engagement

Informing the development of a competency framework for public engagement

Learning for change in public, educational and other science organisations: embedding greater public engagement

Organisational learning and change for public engagement

Comments

  1. I think this is an interesting and valuable report overall. However, there were a few comments towards the end I was less sure about – eg in section 6, p38: “Higher education institutions have simultaneously failed to create scientists who are able to engage with the increasing concerns that citizens have, thereby trapping both HE and science in a supposed scientific neutrality.” I have worked in a University public engagement team (at Cambridge) for several years, and I have worked with several hundred University scientists and scientific students who have developed skills both in understanding citizens’ points of views, and in two-way communication, through training and public events. The Royal Society survey of 2006 into ‘factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers’ found that 20% of scientists had taken part in a public dialogue event or debate in the preceding year, and 23% had engaged with NGOs, for example. We could work to improve these percentages but if the majority of University scientists embarked upon public dialogue activity tomorrow – would there be the public interest in all their areas of science? Surely dialogue activity tends to concentrate on issues of most current and potential future concern. I welcome the exploration throughout the report of the continuum between the ‘telling’, ’sharing’ and ‘debating’ modes of science communication, together with forms of co-production of knowledge. It is worthwhile to explore how scientists can become involved in scientific culture becoming a greater part of the culture available to all citizens. I think a wide range of communications activity (broadcast, museums, festivals) etc should collaborate with and complement public dialogue activity, much of which is organised and commissioned separately through focus groups and similar.

  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    The document “Aspects of science in UK culture” begins well by pointing out that the definition of culture clearly includes scientific understanding. Unfortunately, it then goes on to perpetuate the idea that science is somehow an add-on to culture, by highlighting examples of science/art collaborations as a way of getting science included under the cultural banner, and pointing to distinct scientific programming as if it were a separate entity.

    Surely, the approach should be to integrate scientific understanding in general cultural appreciation. Why doesn’t “The Culture Show” on BBC television regularly feature scientific breakthroughs? Why isn’t a lack of understanding of special relativity as culturally unacceptable as complete ignorance of literature?

  3. Senkei Umehara says:

    I would be curious to read the whole series of reports…

  4. Vicky says:

    Your diagram makes no reference to perhaps the most important factor in todays society: the media. Increasingly, I find I am being told what I think by the media when my opinion has not been asked. GM is a case in point. If we have clear labels on products and people do buy GM products that is the public speaking. A TV or newspaper ranting about how the public don’t want GM food when there has been evidence to the contrary would shut them up once and for all. None of my friends or family have ever voiced objections to GM food in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I would suggest this is an opinion ‘cooked’ up by the media for want of real news.

  5. I can’t promise to respond directly to all comments, but I shall do as much as I can and the Group welcomes constructive feedback and ideas.

    So, a brief response on the first 4 comments:

    Nicola Buckley: You are referring to the summary of one of our pieces of commissioned work (in the Appendix) rather than the report itself, and we have stated that the views expressed in those pieces of work do not necessarily reflect the views of the Group. I am glad you like the continuum concept (telling, sharing, debating etc). We had some vigorous discussion in the Group about this and agreed we (a) did not have time to come to a generally agreed set of definitions (which may not be possible/desirable anyway) and (b) it would be better to attempt to do this with a wider range of people. So we put relatively little of this analysis in the main report, though useful ideas appear in the mapping work and Paul Benneworth’s paper. I think the idea is important though and will help make more explicit, or even help bridge, the sorts of differences you identify.

    Michael Merrifield: You make good points, and I wish we had had more time to progress this aspect. We do however have actions aimed at addressing this wider question of integration of science within our concept of ‘culture’ (e.g. with respect to the way science is seen within DCMS) and some of that is already underway.

    Senkei Umehara: I imagine you refer to the other 4 reports. The Science and Media one is already published. The other three I understand should be published from late February to March.

    Vicky: With one of the 4 other Groups entitled ‘Science and Media’ we inevitably concentrated less on this dimension, although we specifically reinforce their own report in our section 2.7.

  6. I have yet to finish reading the entire report, and so am not in a position to comment in detail on its content. That said, I have glanced at some of the proposed actions, and, while they clearly have merit, I cannot help thinking that the biggest problem in bringing science to the masses is cultural. Culture is addressed in the report, but maybe not in sufficient depth.

    You can talk until the cows come home about serious web portals and social media, but in Britain today the most effective promoters of science in the media are probably a small group of standup comedians who with brilliance and imagination employ their television and radio appearances to place important scientific issues in the public consciousness. And they do it in a way that is likely to stick in people’s minds.

    This is something that cannot be socially engineered, reliant as it is on individual creativity. Just like science itself, for that matter. Public policy should focus on encouraging and facilitating individuals who do and communicate science. Such an investment cannot fail to provide a return.

  7. Andy Lloyd says:

    I think this report is timely and is an excellent start to many ongoing conversations. In particular, I value the effort that has been put into trying to take an overview of all science communication/public engagement activity. The field is so wide now, with different players and many motivations, that it runs the risk of splitting into factions. That being said there are a couple of points I would like to mention which may warrant further discussion.

    Overall I detect an implicit assumption in the document that public engagement is promarily about the relationship between scientists and the public. My worry is that by not explicitly discussing the role of professional science communicators there is a risk that we are seen as well-meaning amateurs. High-quality engagement work is difficult and time-consuming to plan and produce, especially for deeper, more interactive engagement. Some active research scientists are very good at this, but the more time they spend on PE the less they have available to do their research. Ultimately they stop being research scientists and become full-time communicators. Or, they don’t spend enough time developing their engagement work and accept “just good enough”, short-changing the public. Professional science communicators can facilitate scientist-public interaction while limiting the impact on research work.

    My second observation is on the “science and culture” section. This provides an excellent overview of the role for science in cultural programmes, but for me misses the importance of science in “the culture”. By that I mean the degree to which science is on the radar in people’s daily lives – the true test of science for ALL. This isn’t an issue unique to science – many forms of “high” culture are considered irrelevent by many people. Tackling this is much harder than getting more science in the British Museum. Francis Sedgemore has nailed one aspect above – if some comedians (however few) are using science in their material then we are on the way to “normalising” science in our culture. Science Centres, as the network of local cultural institutions that have science as their source material, play a role as do broadcast and new media. Local, grassroots activity may be more important than national, centrally-driven initiatives. Ironically, this is something that the excellent Darwin200 programme understood – linking activities without attempting to curate the whole. What would an ongoing equivalent look like?

    Where this report makes a good start is by recognising that all forms of engagement will be important but the bad news for potential funders is that most, if not all, will need ongoing support: small and large scale, novel and traditional, new and existing, populist and elitist, didactic and participatory. Diversity rather than a central master-plan may be an answer.

  8. Linda Conlon says:

    Science for All – A response from the International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne

    We see Science for All’s recognition that there is already much public engagement activity, but little coordination between these efforts, as important and timely but don’t feel that this report goes nearly far enough. We would like to see it starting a process, rather than being an end result in itself.

    We think it is very odd indeed that the report assumes all engagement will be done by practicing researchers and virtually ignores the role and importance of professional science communicators, and particularly the Science Centres, which collectively across the UK are visited annually by more people than attend football matches.

    We believe focussing on researcher-led engagement misses the point and confuses engagement with scientists with engagement with science. This is an out of date view, as it assumes engagement is really about what scientists want to talk to the public about rather than enabling the public to find out what they want from science, which is what cutting edge public engagement is all about. It also ignores the fact that there is a whole spectrum of public engagement with science that is possible, from introductory activities for pre-school children, to intensive dialogue and co-enquiry projects with engaged adults. While direct interaction between scientists and the public is a good thing, for science to be truly for everyone there also needs to be opportunities for the public to engage with science independently from research scientists. This wider spectrum of independent engagement is something that science centres are particularly good at covering.

    High-quality public engagement is difficult and time-consuming to develop and run. Researchers who do high-quality public engagement have correspondingly less time to do research, and ultimately become less-good researchers. Maintaining time for research could lead to engagement activities that are of lower quality. An emphasis on purely researcher-led engagement risks creating a culture where “just good enough” becomes the norm for engagement activity. Professional science communicators and other facilitators who do this all day, every day, enable the pursuit of excellence for all participants in public engagement and their role deserves greater acknowledgement.

    We also feel that the report doesn’t really understand the position of science in our culture, viewing arts and sciences as opposites, with the consequence that science is thought of as an addition to existing cultural activity. We believe that science (its practice and its general appreciation) is itself a cultural practice. Science centres are the cultural institutions with a science focus, and should be recognised as such.

    Cross-sector and cross-cultural collaboration is already active in North East England. The Centre for Life collaborates extensively with local universities, especially Durham and Newcastle, through the Beacon for Public Engagement, and is part of a cultural consortium of the major Newcastle and Gateshead Cultural Venues. It also is an active participant in national programmes and networks and works hard to put science itself on the cultural agenda.

    Finally, the report sets out a number of follow-on activities and discussions. However, we feel that these are too tame and backward-looking and are very much based in doing more of the kind of thing that is already happening. They do not acknowledge the need for continuing innovation in the field, nor the leading role British science communicators have in innovating in this area. It also ignores the need to develop the use of digital technologies for engagement. Most importantly, it is also very disappointing to find that the opportunity to address the need for financial support for high quality public engagement is once again ignored. We feel that if the Government wants to see development in the field of Public Engagement with Science, the budget is needed to back up the words.

    Linda Conlon, Chief Executive
    International Centre for Life, Newcastle

  9. More good comments.

    Francis Sedgemore: I think that’s a good strategy (supporting innovative individuals), but not the only one. We have acknowledged and highlighted ’social activist’ grass roots approaches for example in the report (section 2.2 action 3).

    Andy Lloyd: I agree about the diversity argument, though that makes networking, sharing and light-touch coordination, by mutual agreement, all the more important.

    I think the report does underplay professional science communicators explicitly, although implicitly they are there throughout. What we could do with is some very specific suggestions about developing the ‘profession’ of science communication. What’s lacking? What should be done? The Science Council has already expressed an interest in looking at this; we did in fact examine a while ago the concept of ‘Chartered Science Communicator’ staus (analogous to Chartered Scientist and Chartered Science Teacher), but it didn’t seem to be viable. Should we re-examine that?

    I agree with the culture point.

    Linda Conlon: Linda shared this with me a couple of days ago so she knows I agree with some of it and strongly disagree with other parts. My main agreement is with her take on the role of science communicators, reinforcing the points above.
    But to address other specific points:
    1. We’ve said very clearly that this report is not an end in itself but the start of a process. This discussion is part of that, but to move on people need to step forward to commit to actions. A core of the original group plus others who have volunteered to lead specific actions (this includes the Science Festivals network and Sciencewise) will work on implementation and help keep the plan live, developing and under continuous review. I don’t yet quite know how we’ll do this but we are meeting on 30 March to review feedback and progress. If others feel they can and want to take responsibility for particular actions (or new ones) please get in touch.
    2. We certainly haven’t made the assumption that engagment is just what scientists want to talk to the public about, nor have we ignored the spectrum of activities; quite the reverse. Look at Paul Benneworth’s paper, and the mapping work (most of one of the 4 areas of the mapping study focuses on science centres).
    3. I completely disagree with the statement that ‘Researchers who do high-quality public engagement have correspondingly less time to do research, and ultimately become less-good researchers’. It is the reverse. Look at the section ‘Personal rewards’ in the supporting paper from People, Science & Policy. Read the SCOPE report. Even anecdotally in our own programmes many scientists have reported the benefits they gain from public perspectives in thinking about their research. The same has been reported from scientists who have to submit to lay panels (e.g. in relation to some charitable funding like Alzheimer’s research).
    4. We really haven’t positioned the sciences as an addition to existing cultural activity. Hence section 2.4 action 1 about institutions ‘recognising science as part of our culture’. And the mapping, when dealing with cultural institutions, primarily covers science centres. They have not been ignored.
    5.Nor have we ignored digital technologies. See section 1.4, as well as other references. The question is what to do about it?

  10. Lionel Hill says:

    I welcome any investigation into how science and the general public can get to know one another a little better. Both of us benefit.

    I do have one bone to pick, though: in figure 1, the little box that indicates that one of the motives for better public understanding of science is “to counter the influence of religion”.

    Talk about throwing a match into a powder store! Personally I feel this little box is badly-informed and inappropriate. It’s badly-informed because it ignores the views of the many scientists who are also deeply religious, and those of many faiths who have no problem with enjoying a scientific understanding of the world. For many of us, there really is no conflict. In fact, religious feeling can even motivate a desire to carry out science. I can’t put it better than Stephen Hales, an 18th Century parish priest and scientist:

    “And since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight and measure, in the make of all things; the most likely way therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation, which come within our observation, must in all reason be to number, weigh, and measure”

    Only a minority of religious people would deny the benefits and scientific foundations of modern medicine. Not all religious people are strict creationists, nor are all scientists followers of Richard Dawkins.

    The box is also inappropriate as this report could easily be seen as a blueprint of how professional scientists, frequently funded by the public, should engage the public. Public money should not be spent on supporting one side of a fairly futile debate between elements of the scientific and religious communities.

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