by David Willetts, Chair of the British Science Association

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For centuries, Britain has been known as the best place in the world to ‘do’ science. Our academic community, business leaders, and Government are keen to ensure that we retain this claim. During my tenure as Universities and Science Minister, I made the case for the importance of science as an engine of our economic growth, working alongside a Chancellor who has become increasingly and consistently sympathetic to investment in science.

But just as important as those who ‘do’ science are those who delight in science as engaged citizens; people who enjoy science as part of their leisure time, or who studied science but work in other sectors and now apply that way of thinking in their daily lives.

I am a firm believer in the notion that science is for everyone. This goes beyond education. Of course all young people should be encouraged to engage with science from an early age, and our future prosperity relies on more continuing in STEM education, through both technical apprentice and University routes. Beyond being ‘just’ a subject, or a profession, or indeed a driver of economic growth, however, science should be seen as a vital part of the cultural fabric of the UK.  It underpins every aspect of our lives and interacts with many other areas of society.

In the early 1830s, a group of polymaths, inventors and historians of science came together to found the British Association for the Advancement of Science – to strengthen the relationship between science and the public interest.  The BA (as it became known; now the British Science Association or BSA) encouraged scientists to discuss their work with the public, as well as colleagues from across different disciplines.

The Association was one of the first institutions to hold public meetings open to all, including women (almost unheard of at that time) and was also known to give speaking opportunities to those earlier in their careers, a tradition that continues today with its prestigious Award Lectures. Today it aims to grow and diversify the community of people engaged in science, through a range of education, public engagement and science communication programmes. It is seeking to create greater public ownership of and interest in science.

I am not what most people would consider a scientist.  I would rather define myself a non-scientist who is a fan of science.  I like to think of myself as a rational thinker, champion of evidence, and fascinated by how things connect together.  I enjoy science festivals, read popular science, and engage in debates over the effect that science and technology has on us – and vice versa.

How refreshing, then, to be invited to take up the Chair of the British Science Association, as the organisation begins to embark on working towards its new vision, of making science as a fundamental part of our culture and society at large.

We have an obligation to equip future generations of young people with basic scientific literacy – questioning, investigating, reasoning, evaluating evidence, understanding risk and uncertainty – who are comfortable with science and excited by discovery, whether they choose a future path in science or not.

We are also aiming to encourage and support science enthusiasts of all ages who are engaged and participative – who attend events, keep up to date and contribute to discussion and debate, but aren’t professionally involved. The scientific equivalent of people who have strong amateur interests in music, sport, photography, and so on. By strengthening this group, we in turn will strengthen science’s place in society.

This will benefit future individual and societal decision making and civic participation, and encourage influencers in all sectors to see science as part of their domain and their responsibility.

The Association’s inaugural annual meeting was held in York. Over 180 years later we returned to Yorkshire, to the city of Bradford - rich in scientific and cultural heritage and home to some tremendously exciting science and engineering today.  Across four days, thousands of people attended over 120 events, talks and performances from the scientific spectrum; events that not only celebrate cutting-edge research and innovation but also explore science’s impact on, and interaction with, other areas of society.  It was so refreshing to see so many self-confessed non-scientists amongst our number last week. I eagerly await next year’s instalment in Swansea.