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22/12/2014

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Shorts: March 2009

Engagement on a small scale

A pair of recent research papers has thrown light on how the public should be engaged ‘upstream' - that is, in advance of - of the development of policy on new technologies.

The research shows that national differences between the UK and US are less important in determining attitudes to nanotechnology than the nature of the potential application. It also shows that knowing more polarises people's views rather than inevitably influencing opinion positively.

A pair of recent research papers has thrown light on how the public should be engaged ‘upstream' - that is, in advance of - of the development of policy on new technologies.

The research shows that national differences between the UK and US are less important in determining attitudes to nanotechnology than the nature of the potential application. It also shows that knowing more polarises people's views rather than inevitably influencing opinion positively.

Last year the UK government set up the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre (ERC) to make it easier for policymakers to engage with the public about the potential impacts of emerging technology.  At its launch, then Minister for Science and Innovation, Ian Pearson MP, said, `We want people to have confidence that the policies being developed on their behalf will benefit society as a whole.'

The special relationship

UK lead researcher for the first study, Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University, told People & Science: ‘[In each country] we did one deliberative workshop on nanotechnology and energy and one on health and human enhancement. There were some quite big differences between the health and enhancement and energy groups, regardless of the country. But when you looked at the differences between the UK and the US overall, they were much more muted.'

Optimists and pessimists?

Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, and co-authors, researched attitudes to nanotechnology in two similar groups of Americans. One group was given no information, other than that nanotechnology is a scientific process for producing and manipulating very small particles. The other received information balanced between the potential benefits and risks.

‘There was no net impact of giving information but whereas before [that is, without information] everybody was sort of hovering around the middle, now there were two opposing groups,' Kahan said. One group focused more on the benefits and the other on the risks, depending on their cultural predisposition and attitude to risk.

Careful strategies

Both researchers agreed that careful public engagement was needed. ‘It would be a great mistake to pursue development of such technologies without some form of public debate and oversight,' said Pidgeon, while Kahan warned: `The government should make sure people of all cultural outlooks have the best information possible. To do that, you have to pay attention to the way in which people with different values interpret information. What [people] want to do at that point will probably depend on their values and [they] still might disagree, but at least we'll all know the facts.'

1 The papers appeared in Nature Nanotechnology on 6 February, 2009. See www.nature.cpm/nnano

Journalism improving

A Royal Society spokesman says the quality of UK science journalism has improved ‘dramatically’ since 1999. Meanwhile, a Canadian study has found that health journalists under-report risk and ignore potential conflicts of interest,1 and a prominent US health reporter has called for higher health reporting standards.

A Royal Society spokesman says the quality of UK science journalism has improved ‘dramatically’ since 1999. Meanwhile, a Canadian study has found that health journalists under-report risk and ignore potential conflicts of interest,1 and a prominent US health reporter has called for higher health reporting standards.

Susan Dentzer, editor-in-chief of Health Affairs, suggested reporters ask themselves:  ‘On the basis of my news account, what would a prudent person do or assume about a given medical intervention, and did I therefore succeed in delivering the best public health message possible?’  

Grading articles

A US website project, HealthNewsReview.org, modelled on similar sites in Australia and Canada, has been grading health news coverage against ten criteria since April 2006.  It has compared the scores of the first 100 stories it reviewed and the most recent 100.  ‘We saw some significant improvements in that two-and-a-half year timespan,’ said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of the project and Associate Professor on a University of Minnesota health journalism programme.  

‘Nonetheless, there is a clear trend toward the "quick hit" story – tending to be more about studies and journal articles because they're easier and cheaper to cover.  [These] do a disservice because they tend not to evaluate the quality of the evidence, discuss costs, quantify harms and benefits, or seek independent sources without conflicts of interest,’ Schwitzer continued.

Ideals and time

In November 2001, the Social Issues Research Centre, Royal Society and Royal Institution issued joint guidelines on health and science communication for the UK. Steve Connor, Science Editor of the Independent, points out the limitations of such ideals.

‘I don't much like the idea of organisations outside journalism, such as the Royal Society, laying down guidelines on how to do my job,' he told People & Science. ‘We have to be as quick and as accurate as we possibly can in the short time available.’ 

Past improvement

But Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, thinks there has been a big improvement in the UK since 1999, when he and Steve Connor each gave evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee for their Science and Society report.  `My personal view is that the quality is really rather good in mainstream media.  Ten years ago there were relatively few science editors and science journalists.  Now there are far more people in the media who can seriously engage with scientists,' he said.

1 Tania Bubela, Heather Boon and Timothy Caulfield (2008), Herbal Remedy Clinical Trials in the Media: a Comparison with the Coverage of Conventional Pharmaceuticals. BMC Medicine, 6:35

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor
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