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The billion dollar question

The billion dollar question

Ollie ChristophersOllie Christophers has worked in science communications since graduating from the Cardiff University School of Journalism and Business School. He has since worked for organisations such as the Met Office, Department of Health and British Science Association and these are his views about the impact of the Public Attitudes to Science Survey.

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Hold the front page! One of the top findings of the 2011 Public Attitudes to Science survey was that over 80% of the UK public think they should take an interest in science! With £4.6bn of taxpayer’s money being ploughed into it each year, not to mention the capital expenditure on top, you’d hope 80% would take at least an interest. Now in 2013, we’re about to have another round of questioning on public attitudes to science, but with bigger and deeper cuts to public expenditure looming, the PAS survey needs to provide more valuable insights than ‘the public are interested in science and half want to hear more’.

One of the primary aims of doing this poll is to gauge ‘the perceived impact of science on society, in terms of its impact on entertainment and culture, and on the economy’. What is it actually asking about the desperate need for investment in science for the good of the economy?

In 2011, 79% of respondents agreed that the UK needs to develop its science and technology sector in order to enhance its international competitiveness; that 75% of respondents agreed that scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth in the UK and that 63% disagree that science funding should be cut so that the money can be better spent elsewhere. It also touches briefly upon the role of science for future prosperity and careers for the next generation.

Government ministers George Osborne, Vince Cable and David Willetts are in agreement over the key role of science, technology and innovation in rebalancing the economy. The Chancellor even called science a ‘personal priority for me’ last month, so if this is the case, why has the science budget just been ring fenced (a cut in real terms) and not increased? Now, if only someone working in the science sector had an upcoming poll of UK residents to find out if they would support an increase in funding for UK Science...

There are currently 188 questions in the PAS survey - how many of these questions were measuring the perceived impact of science on the economy? Well I counted five. So a whopping 2.7% of this leviathan survey, which asks other crucial questions like ‘If you went to a theme park in the last 12 months, who did you go with’ (of course this is important, I hear you say), is focussed on asking you what you think about one of the keynote strategies to save us all from ‘impending financial doom’.

Perhaps the follow up qualitative survey could be used to ask some further questions that actually add value to a case for more funding around the themes of;

  • Which industries should the UK focus on as part of a national strategy for growth?
  • Would you support an increase in the science budget as a strategy to rebalance the economy?
  • Do you believe that other countries are harvesting our brightest scientists because they fund more research?

Back in 2000 when the first poll was conducted, we were all still singing ‘Things can only get better’, and for a short while they did, but even Brian Cox has moved on from that and got serious about science and so should we.

Join the debate...

Comments...

Kerry Seelhoff's picture

Yes, it would be interesting to see if there is widespread public appetite for an increase in funding for UK science. Exploring these issues deliberatively would provide valuable research, particularly if pitched in the wider context of government funding. We will shortly consider the qualitative elements of PAS and will put forward proposals, such as yours, to the Steering Group.

Jayesh Navin Shah's picture

Where did the survey questions come from?

Hi Ollie,

Very thoughtful post.

As Kerry mentions above, BIS and Ipsos MORI will take this and any other comments made here/elsewhere into account when deciding on the topics for the upcoming face-to-face qualitative research.

Just to respond to some of the specific points you raise about the survey questions:

- It is important to have questions exploring views on science in the economy, but as the study has numerous objectives, and is not exclusively about science in the economy, we need to ask about other areas too.

- We do have various questions looking at science in the economy, and there are only so many things you can explore about this area using a questionnaire - that's why it would be interesting to explore the topics you raise qualitatively, to get more in-depth insights. We also need to consider the respondents - a survey with lots of questions only about science in the economy would be quite off-putting for some people!

- You'll be happy to hear the theme parks question is gone. There was a point to questions like this. They were intended to capture how people take part in science-related leisure activities (e.g. visits to Science Museums) relative to other activities to give some comparison/context. They also help with the segmentation work we do on the survey data, telling you what kind of person is in each segment, beyond just their views on science. Nonetheless, BIS, the steering group and Ipsos MORI all agreed that some of these questions were of less value, so many from 2011 are no longer in the survey currently being undertaken.

Oliver Christophers's picture

Hi Jayesh and Kerry, thanks for your feedback- it's great to hear my comments have either been taken on board or were already being put in place. I absolutely understand the need to have a broad approach to science and society in this survey, so I'm not trying to swing it to being just about the economy. It just seemed like there's a way to make this survey benefit the industry's funding chances.

Good luck with it all.

All the best,

Ollie

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