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23/09/2014

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Finding out why people think the way they do about science

Finding out why people think the way they do about science

Hilary LeeversAs part of the Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) 2014 study, Ipsos MORI held a qualitative Day of Discovery in London earlier this month. With a 15-strong team from Ipsos MORI, they recruited over 100 members of the general public to enter the Crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church to spend part of their day discussing how to improve the quality of science communication. In particular, the day focused on five different questions:

  • What is the best way to communicate with different segments of the public?
  • Why do people feel better informed about certain topics than others?
  • How can we help people better understand what scientists actually do in their work?
  • How can we improve trust in science and scientists?
  • What drives public support for investment in science and technology?

All these are questions that the PAS 2014 survey findings can help with, but require a qualitative approach for a more meaningful answer, as Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust and one of the observers on the day, recounts below.

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It was fascinating to eavesdrop on the Day of Discovery. As an enthusiast myself, it was revealing to listen to some people speaking frankly about the more troubled or detached relationships they have with science alongside the passion of others.

Over the last few years, I've learnt more about survey design through work on the Wellcome Trust Monitor, not least how hard and important it is to be sure that respondents are answering the questions that we intend to ask. Many questions are "cognitively tested" before use - tried out on people who answer them and then explain why they answered as they did. This can help you ask the right question, but a table of answers can leave you with many more questions as you try to understand what it really means.

The crypt at St-Martins-in-the-fieldThe rich qualitative data from the Day of Discovery will help with the "why" that underlies the quantitative data of "what" people think about science, systematically recorded in the Public Attitudes to Science survey. Participants would have got out of bed that morning, with no expectation that they would be asked to think deeply about their relationships with science - they seemed intrigued both by their introspection and by understanding more about science itself. They were asked what they thought and wanted to know about topics from nuclear power to genetic modification, with great consensus on nanotechnology (simply - how is it possible to make things that small?). When asked what would have made you more interested in science, a couple of comments like "physically doing something rather than just learning about it from books" affirm current work to ensure that schools continue to teach practicals.

It was disheartening to hear Wakefield and the MMR crisis cited to explain some respondents' mistrust in science - perpetuated by misunderstanding of its processes. On the other hand, people were open to learning more and the "Ask a scientist" table was pretty much under siege with people interested not only in their work, but also how academia functions in general. A particularly keen questioner commented that she wouldn't normally have the chance to meet scientists.

The day beautifully illustrated what can be gained from engaging the public with and in research – and this was a great example of embedding such mutually beneficial engagement in social science.

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You can also read an earlier post in this series, from one of the scientists who attended the Day, here.

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