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19/04/2014

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Government news

Digital by default

Karen Folkes reflects on techniques of public consultation

The announcement of the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was eagerly anticipated in BIS. I learned of the result on Twitter during a meeting of the Science for All expert group, where we discussed BIS’s proposed new Science and Society objectives. What struck me most was the immediacy of it all. Only a few moments after the announcement, the UK science community was tweeting away joyously at the breaking news about Sir John Gurdon. At about the same time, it appeared on BBC online. There was a cheer and ripple of applause in the Dana Centre.

New public attitudes survey

Whilst we’ve witnessed the emergence of social media in recent years, I’m not sure whether we fully understand how much it is being used by the public as a source of information on science. This certainly wasn’t the case during the last Public Attitudes to Science survey three years ago, but it is something that we’d like to explore this time.

We at BIS are now gearing up for the fifth three-yearly survey since 2000. We have an enthusiastic steering group helping us to shape the tender and ask difficult questions, like whether we should use random or quota sampling, which questions we need to ask in order to provide evidence to support our objectives and whether there are significant differences across the UK.

For the BIS review of our Science and Society programme, we have used a mix of both online and offline ways to consult on the objectives and criteria which are now agreed. This way we’re able to reach people we wouldn’t normally contact, but also have opportunities to discuss things in more detail. We’ve now moved on to the most exciting phase: working out what activities BIS should actually do.

Digital by default

Karen Folkes reflects on techniques of public consultation

The announcement of the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was eagerly anticipated in BIS. I learned of the result on Twitter during a meeting of the Science for All expert group, where we discussed BIS’s proposed new Science and Society objectives. What struck me most was the immediacy of it all. Only a few moments after the announcement, the UK science community was tweeting away joyously at the breaking news about Sir John Gurdon. At about the same time, it appeared on BBC online. There was a cheer and ripple of applause in the Dana Centre.

New public attitudes survey

Whilst we’ve witnessed the emergence of social media in recent years, I’m not sure whether we fully understand how much it is being used by the public as a source of information on science. This certainly wasn’t the case during the last Public Attitudes to Science survey three years ago, but it is something that we’d like to explore this time.

We at BIS are now gearing up for the fifth three-yearly survey since 2000. We have an enthusiastic steering group helping us to shape the tender and ask difficult questions, like whether we should use random or quota sampling, which questions we need to ask in order to provide evidence to support our objectives and whether there are significant differences across the UK.

For the BIS review of our Science and Society programme, we have used a mix of both online and offline ways to consult on the objectives and criteria which are now agreed. This way we’re able to reach people we wouldn’t normally contact, but also have opportunities to discuss things in more detail. We’ve now moved on to the most exciting phase: working out what activities BIS should actually do.

Online and offline

This mix of digital and face-to-face engagement isn’t new, but perhaps in all the excitement of going digital we don’t fully recognise or promote the value of an integrated approach.

I’m pleased that the Sciencewise-ERC is trying to do just that by promoting the benefits of public dialogue, using both traditional and more innovative methods. And practising what it preaches

Just last month we launched a new Citizen Group. This is a corps of ordinary people who will debate how the programme is run, feeding in their perspective to the Sciencewise-ERC Steering Group through direct representation on this Group. And through the partnership with the British Science Association, Sciencewise is now reaching out to the public with a dedicated channel on the Association’s new website.

Strengthened citizen input

By debating and interrogating proposals for the development and implementation of the Sciencewise-ERC, the Citizen Group will help the Steering Group to ensure the continued relevance of the programme.

This is different from having a small number of lay members on an otherwise expert group, which can present barriers for members of the public to truly engage. We hope this innovation will provide a test-bed for how citizens can be an integral part of governance and decision making more widely across government.

Have to be there

Whilst BIS and government move forward with ‘digital by default’ and online approaches to policy making, we still need to engage in person with stakeholders and the public to ensure we keep it real. That applies equally to me and my colleagues, as civil servants, as to Ministers - whom we encourage to visit the many events, festivals and activities in the scientific calendar as well as engaging online.

And as the Nobel Prize winners would undoubtedly agree, after their visits to Stockholm to receive their prizes in person, we acknowledge that sometimes you just have to be there.

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Karen Folkes
Karen Folkes is Deputy Head of the Science and Society team at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
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