Annual Review 2013-14
If I were to ask you to point out precisely where your own liver is, I suspect many of you would struggle.
But in any NHS clinic for a serious illness, you can be sure that every patient sitting in that waiting room could answer the question about the location of their liver with precision, and any other of their organs for that matter. They will also have, almost certainly, mastered a good deal of information about their condition and its treatment, regardless of the level of education they have had.
My point being: non-scientists will comfortably – and, in a short time, confidently – engage with an area of science if it impinges directly on them. And clinicians have learned the value of the informed conversations that follow. They may well make diagnosis easier, or at least quicker. They may enable the clinician to allay the patient’s fears, or to better match treatment to their circumstances.
So I dismiss the ‘deficit model’ of public understanding of science – the idea that non-scientists are empty of scientific content and understanding and must be ‘filled’ with appropriately pre-digested knowledge. Today, I suggest, the public at large is prepared (both in terms of intellectual training and inclination) to engage with science, so long as they can see something in it for themselves.
And of course, since our modern world is so underpinned by science and technology, it ought to be the case that that means they are generally open to engagement with science. If they are not, we need to think about the reasons why.
That is why it has been such a pleasure to have been the President of the British Science Association for the past year. The organisation has taken a step back from its usual day-to-day, and asked these big questions not just about the organisation’s purpose in the science communication sector, but also in society as a whole. It has questioned how it can work better to achieve its aims and objectives, and it has scoped out the current landscape of what does and doesn’t work in public engagement.
The next few years will be an incredibly exciting time for the Association and I look forward to seeing the results of the review in the coming weeks and months. There is a definite place for the Association in the sector, and it is fantastic to see that even the most established organisations are still willing to refresh and evaluate their goals.
Professor Lisa Jardine CBE
President of the British Science Association