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20/09/2014

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A new vision for science

A new vision for science

by Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association.

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Is science really part of the UK's culture?

The British Science Association recently completed a period of reflection on what we do, who we serve, and why. We concluded that the answer to that question is 'no' - for now.

For instance, do people who engage in individual science activities make the leap and engage in others? Are we pulling in enough people from new and diverse backgrounds? Do these people consider themselves as part of a science community, or do they engage just as a novelty?  How can we connect science with the rest of society? These are the questions that we’ve been asking ourselves while developing our new plans.

In future, the British Science Association will help more people enjoy, explore, investigate and discuss science. We will support, grow and diversify the community of people who are interested in and involved in science, technology, engineering and maths; and who contribute to its impact on UK culture, our society and the economy.

Our vision for the future is one where science is seen as part of – rather than set apart from – culture and society at large. 

Take ‘citizen science’, for instance. Projects like Galaxy ZooFoldIt, and AshTag show the potential of involving non-professionals in the scientific process. But the fact that we call this ‘citizen science’ is illuminating. There is no such thing as ‘citizen politics’, ‘citizen sport’ or ‘citizen music’. It’s just politics, sport or music. 

Those areas all have an expert, professional class – just like science does – but they also have a broader community that feels a sense of identity and ownership over them. These are the people who buy the t-shirt, go to the gig, play Sunday football, or become political activists.  It’s a group whose analogue we don’t have in science.

We wouldn’t define something like tennis or photography just by its professional community, yet science is caricatured as something done by men in lab coats – instead of a definition based on its role in our economy, social lives, politics or the media.  

We’ve ended up in an odd paradox where, despite science’s importance to society, it’s ended up in a cultural silo. Most of the people who have both the inclination and the ability to defend, promote, criticise or debate science come from the relatively small professional community.

Luckily, there are an increasing number of ways to open up science: citizen science experiments and bio-hacking; more science in popular media; events such as science festivals or ‘Lates’; venues like Science Centres and museums; movements like MakerFaire and Skeptics in the Pub; and political campaigns such as AllTrials and Science is Vital.

At the BSA, we believe that science education needn’t necessarily be about creating future scientists; it should create a population that’s comfortable in understanding, using, and engaging with science, and sees it just as another part of life. That’s partly why the BSA has teamed up with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award; if young people achieve one of our Bronze, Silver or Gold CREST Awards, it now counts towards their DofE ‘skill’ at the same level, for example.

Our programmes will do more to encourage people to engage with science, become ambassadors for science, and ultimately to be empowered to challenge and influence British science - whether they become scientists or not. 

We want to create more partnerships to ensure that more communities, cultural institutions and public spaces are celebrating and giving people opportunities to participate in science. And we plan to do more with Citizen Science, as well as lead public debate on hot topics.

We want to take science out of its cultural ghetto and make it something that belongs to a wider community.  In short, we want to rebrand science from being a 'profession' to a fundamental part of our society.

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