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Re-engagement at the Royal Society

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, thinks it’s time to revisit public engagement as part of the Society’s major studies. ‘I’d like to see this possibility discussed,’ he says. ‘We should at least consider whether we should do that routinely.’

His conviction that scientists need to listen to people goes back a long way.

Undergraduate enthusiasm

In 1967, he went as an undergraduate in Biology to Birmingham University (having been given special dispensation to enrol without the obligatory qualification in French, which he kept on failing).  In 2000, when he was Director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, he was appointed to run the Royal Society’s Science in Society programme. It lasted until 2007, when its dedicated funding stopped.  His argument for the programme turned out to be a case of history repeating itself.

‘I wrote a paper on science and society in 1968 that I’d completely forgotten about,’ he told me. ‘It was probably for our student mag; I can’t remember. When I was packing up to go somewhere a couple of years ago I found it, and I started reading this thing. I thought, “This is really interesting!” - and I looked to see who had written it and I found it was me!  It was almost what I then wrote 30 years later – we need to talk to the public; we need to justify what we’re doing; we need to engage.’

Licence to operate

There’s a phrase from Patrick Jenkin’s 2010 report  that sticks in Nurse’s mind:  that scientists need to earn their ‘licence to operate’.  ‘Engagement’, he says, ‘is part of the process of earning and keeping your licence.’ Engagement is necessary, he thinks, for enabling good policy-making on issues involving science. 

He recalls his time at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. ‘We had a lot of engagement there. What is important here is building up trust in the individuals doing the research.  If you have a very good and open relationship with them, they trust you’ll make judgements which are sensible and ultimately could be for their benefit. If on the other hand you as scientists push them away, you will encourage suspicion and a lack of trust and you will encourage forces which will want to take over the decision making.’


Nearly ten years after the GM Nation debate, I ask, should we have another public dialogue on GM?  He answers without hesitation: ‘Yes.

‘The GM engagement was a mess. We didn’t ask properly the questions the public were interested in. We did a survey afterwards and found that the most common concern which was stated was that the public didn’t want to eat food with genes in it.  It’s not a question that scientists would think of.  We needed to explain that and we didn’t.

‘My starting point would be to have a serious consultation with the public to get an idea of what they really think are the issues and how many of them think it.  Then that should inform a subsequent debate about what the issues are that we have to deal with.’

No lessons from the US

The new President shared the Nobel Prize in 2001, for work on regulators of the cell cycle.  Along with his Royal Society post, he is CEO and Director of the new UK Centre for Medical Research & Innovation. He has been President of Rockefeller University since 2003. Does he think the United States has anything to teach the UK when it comes to public engagement?  ‘Almost nothing.  There’s gut enthusiasm for science there, but in terms of dialogue they look to the UK.’  When it comes to engagement, he says, the UK is ‘somewhere near the front.’

Liberal support

Sir Paul thinks the Royal Society should make science exciting and interesting to the public. He acknowledges the other tillers of these particular fields - ‘we’re only part of the whole framework’ – and here he stumbles, wanting to refer to the British Science Association but falling back on ‘the BA’. (‘I wouldn’t have changed the name of the BA. I think it was daft.’)  He also cites the Royal Institution. (‘The RI is obviously in a muddle at the moment and we must hope they can get out of it.’) 

Apart from its lectures, webcasts and media presence, Nurse thinks the Royal has a particular contribution to make ‘because of the way we fund excellence and are rather liberal about it.’

Thus the Society can fund Brian Cox, who is a Royal Society university research fellow, and not worry too much if his research is suffering while he makes TV programmes. ‘We have contributed in a small way to what is at the moment the most important communicator of science in Britain,’ says Nurse.

Science and pseudoscience

I ask Sir Paul what he thinks of events in Christchurch (see p21 of this issue). After its first serious earthquake, earlier this year, local geologists ‘attained an almost rock star drawing power, with public lectures on the earthquake filled to overflowing,’ as author Michael Edmonds relates. After the second, devastating earthquake however, people looked to pseudoscience for answers.

‘When there are desperate circumstances, individuals do look for control and they turn to people who offer control,’ says Nurse. ‘Scientists on the whole don’t do that.  Long-term trust depends on honesty. We can’t over-claim.  We have to be what we are. Certainty is attractive to the public, but we have to admit we don’t know things.  You need to build a culture which has such respect for science that charlatans don’t get a look-in.’

A firm foundation for this would be science education which produces school-leavers who ‘know enough about science to distinguish astronomy from astrology.’

Scientists alone cannot fashion such a society.  They ‘should be working with social scientists because we are part of society. Some of my colleagues may not feel comfortable with that, but if you’re trying to influence public policy you have to have good science and then you have to know how to interact with society to communicate that.’ 

Prepare for big questions

Nurse is a geneticist whose genetic background was hidden from him by his family. He recently discovered that the people he thought were his parents were actually his grandparents. He has written that this didn’t really change anything for him: ‘I was brought up by loving grandparents and had a happy childhood.’

It’s a story that illustrates the weight of the environment end of the nature/nurture balance.  Faced with a media, however, which likes to overplay the importance of genes by describing ‘genes for…’, how does he think we should be dealing with a debate so often out of kilter? 

The fact that we’re the product of genes and environment ‘informs discussions about what we are and should inform discussion about our responsibility for our actions,’ he says. ‘Merely stating that has implications for how we think about ourselves in a whole variety of ways, including justice. And we need to discuss that. As we gradually get more and more information about genes and what we have, and as we get to understand human physiology and behaviour better, these sorts of questions will pop up. And it’d be a good idea if we were prepared for it.’

In the big questions, engagement is key.

Wendy Barnaby
Wendy Barnaby is Editor of People & Science
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