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Has the public engagement project stalled?

Has the public engagement project stalled?

By Katie Griffiths, Young People's Programme Assistant at the British Science Association


"Has the public engagement project stalled?" This was the question Professor Lisa Jardine asked in her Presidential Address as the British Science Festival drew to a close last week. Over the past decade, public interest and enthusiasm about science has increased hugely, so why do we appear to have hit a wall when it comes to public engagement in science policy?

Professor Jardine started by dismissing the 'deficit model' of science communication, in which the public at large are considered to be 'empty vessels', who need filling with science knowledge, as a fallacy. The public at large, Professor Jardine asserted, will comfortably and confidently engage with scientific subjects if and when they impact strongly on their own lives. As an example, she pointed out how people with little to no scientific education are able to gain huge amounts of technical knowledge about their own biology and biochemistry when they become ill with diseases like cancer.

Clearly clinicians have learnt the value of the informed conversation, and now Professor Jardine is calling for politicians and policy makers to learn the same. She described how current Government policy considers evidence behind closed doors, and then delivers the results of these consultations to the public 'cold'. Any public consultations are at best a gesture to involving the public at large in decisions, because policy makers believe it is not worth their while equipping the public with the knowledge that they need to get involved. This is the reason, Professor Jardine believes that some topics become polarised, making meaningful conversations post-decision impossible.

Professor Jardine used the recent controversial topic of fracking to illustrate her point: she suggests that if the public had been provided with full and open access to the research and evidence-based recommendations of the committee before the Government took their decision, the response may have been different. As it was, the decision was sprung upon the public without any background information or evidence, and opinions inevitably became polarised, making further discussion challenging.

So what if the public at large were to participate in decision making at an earlier stage? Would lay people be able to keep up with the science and understand the implications of the evidence? Professor Jardine says yes, and cites examples of consultations carried out by the HFEA to back-up this assertion. However, policy makers need to be realistic, she says, and put in place longer time frames to allow for genuine informed conversation with the public. 

Professor Jardine ended her lecture by telling the British Science Festival that the public at large have a responsibility to engage with science. It is not good enough, she says, for us to shrug our shoulders and say that the big issues are beyond our comprehension. Advances in science come hand-in-hand with ethical and moral questions that scientists should not be left to answer alone. We, as the public, have a collective responsibility to remain in conversation with scientists, and to ensure that the decisions we take as a society are the right ones so that one day, when history looks back on the paths we chose, it looks favourably on our decisions.

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