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A place in the sun

Karen Folkes shines a light on Science and Society

Mixed messages on public engagement

Our three-yearly Public Attitudes to Science survey has mixed messages for those of us involved in public engagement. Half of those surveyed feel they see and hear too little information about science, whilst 56 per cent do not feel well informed about scientific research and developments.  While 82 per cent of the survey sample agreed that ‘science is a big part of our lives and we should all take an interest’, only 67 per cent seemed to agree that they themselves backed this up with personal interest.

Interestingly, almost exactly the same results were obtained from our survey of 14-16 year olds which was published during National Science & Engineering Week.  However, there still seems to be an appetite to know more about the research and developments that are taking place.

Minister’s comments

“It’s encouraging that people are increasingly interested in research and new developments,” said Science Minister David Willetts, responding to the survey.  “However, more disappointingly, at the same time they feel less informed. People want more information and to engage with these subjects in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s a very clear message which Government has an important role in responding to,” he said.

“That’s why we have a £13 million commitment in the science budget this year alone for outreach in schools and public engagement,” he continued. “This will support flagship schemes such as the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre, which gives the public opportunities to get involved in shaping future science and technology policy. We have also committed to renewing the £6.3m support for STEMNET, an organisation that helps young people understand the amazing range of careers that can come from studying these subjects.”

Raw data

The survey once again showed perennial issues with trust in both business and government use of science, which have implications for scientists in both settings.  That ‘hierarchy of trust’ was also evident in the way in which people approach the science that they hear and read about, with radio and television seen as more ‘trustworthy’ than science presented in newspapers. 

Given that the data was collected towards the end of a year dominated by science coverage on the BBC, and ever more efforts from the public engagement community to communicate science, it was a surprise to us that there was a fall in the number of people feeling informed. We started to assess this at the workshops held after the quantitative research, but this could be unpicked further, as could other aspects of the data. 

We’re pleased that, in the spirit of transparency, we have for the first time made the raw data available for those of you with an interest. The 2008 and 2005 survey data is also available and we’re looking forward to seeing how they will be used.

Investment reaffirmed

Kicking off another successful National Science & Engineering Week, the Big Bang Fair and the National Science & Engineering Competition brought a record 30,000 visitors. A poll of the young people who went revealed a positive attitude to a career in science and engineering. 

To continue this positive trend, BIS has reaffirmed its investment in outreach in schools and public engagement. We will continue to support events which give the public (both young and old) an opportunity to meet scientists and see how science applies to real life situations. We have committed to renewing support for STEMNET and the STEM Ambassadors programme to help young people understand the amazing range of careers that can come from studying STEM subjects. And we are continuing with the Sciencewise public dialogue programme, bringing public views into science policy-making.

Science engagement still has its place in the sun!

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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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