People & Science

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24/10/2014

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Engagement from on high

David Willetts doesn’t sit still for long.  In his departmental eyrie, with its stunning view of the façade of Westminster Abbey, he occasionally drapes one leg over the arm of his chair, or turns round quickly when something particularly catches his attention.  You get the feeling that his mind is just as restless. This bodes well for the public engagement community even if, as yet, he’s not focusing on its issues with the eagle-eyed intensity it might wish for.

He wants me to know, however, that he’s looking forward to coming to the British Science Festival in Birmingham: ‘I come from Birmingham and it’s great that the Festival is going there this year.’

He’s all for the public taking part in policy making on science-related issues.  ‘I think it’s very important we have the general public involved,’ he says. ‘We have seen in painful episodes like the GM debate what happens when the scientific community and high-level policy making gets detached from people’s day-to-day concerns.  And you could argue similarly the MMR episode.  I see part of my job as a layman – I don’t claim to be a scientist – to be just one of the many bridges between lay people and the scientific community.’

Science and Society

He labels the outputs of the Science and Society initiative as ‘very useful’ citing, first, Mark Walport’s ‘excellent’ report for the Science and Learning expert group.1 The Walport report ‘brings across very clearly that, in order to get more young people to study science, we have to balance the inputs of scientifically-trained teachers’ ability for students at secondary school to do individual science GCSEs, and also the demand of the students themselves.’

He also commends Fiona Fox’s group on Science and the Media,2 and the work of the Science Media Centre, adding, ‘I think we’re all trying to learn the importance of better engagement between scientists and the media.’

Taking the outputs forward, however, comes with an ‘inevitable’ caveat: a reminder that – at the time of the interview – the government was embarking on the comprehensive spending review. ‘Money is very tight so across every department we’re all having to look at our budgets,’ he says.

State of dialogues

Does the Minister have any thoughts about the state of dialogues between scientists and the public?  ‘I think the Synthetic Biology Dialogue has been very helpful and people had some quite interesting questions about why were scientists doing it, which is a question that scientists sometimes take for granted.  Are they just doing it for publicity, or to make money? Are they just doing it because potentially it’s something they can do and as soon as the technology becomes possible they feel obliged to do it?  Some of those really simple layman’s questions put scientists on the spot and they have to think through why they’re doing it.’

He adds that the resignations from the Food Standard Agency’s planned GM consultation3 raise ‘trickier questions’.  ‘I’m discussing that with colleagues because I do think we need some kind of exercise like that,’ he says.

More to politics than evidence

So what about the feeling that, in spite of all the rhetoric about dialogue, scientists are still setting the agenda?  Willetts summarises the argument succinctly: ‘Scratch beneath the surface and underneath the language of dialogue there’s the same old assumption that there’s a group of people who are custodians of the truth and the rest of us the ignorant masses who need to be told what’s what.’  His own gaze, now fixed on Westminster Abbey, bypasses the specifics of the issue, settling instead over the broad contours of the engagement landscape.

‘The scientific community is changing,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of work to do but I think especially the younger scientists do understand that they all operate within one shared society and one shared community. I know this as a politician. There’s more to politics than evidence. There are beliefs, there are commitments and there are promises, and all these things that make life so complicated also make life meaningful and worthwhile.  You can’t simply say you’re looking at the evidence. In everything you do, you operate within a moral framework.’

Build up trust

The trouble with some dialogue, I suggest, is that the issues are already contentious.  People have already taken up their positions.  Would it be better to do as the Alzheimer’s Society does, and build dialogue in to normal working?  The society habitually consults people with dementia to help set their research priorities, and – unlikely as it may sound - it works.

This elicits a swivel-round and full attention.  ‘Very interesting! I think we ought to find out more about how the Alzheimer’s Society does it!  Building up trust before the row breaks out is a lot better than deciding to have a dialogue after the row has started. Very good advice!’

No credit to government

I quote from one of the papers commissioned as part of the Science and Society initiative:  ‘Public engagement remains counter-cultural to the ethos of most public and educational institutions, scientific research and the civil service… Government has powers that could be used to promote public engagement, if it wishes to use them.’4

The Minister protests.  ‘I think that is too pessimistic an assessment.  I agree there are problems and we need to do more, but my view is that the level of public engagement in science has improved.  I don’t actually think that successive governments deserve the credit for it. I think that the transformation of science journalism, the accessibility of good books on science, the BBC’s fantastic openness on science, especially this year with the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society – all those events mean that there is much more dialogue than there has been.’

If citizens want to become engaged in scientific issues, then, how should they do it?  Willetts cites events such as science festivals, public events at the Royal Society, the Reith lecture question times and public hearings of the Parliamentary committees on science and technology. 

Dialogue and democracy

He sees dialogue, not in terms of the conversations in the public engagement community, but as something built in to the system of government. He cites the Ministerial Code,5 and the new Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making,6 as examples of a two-way process of links between democratic politicians and the scientific community. ‘People should not forget’, he says, ‘that every MP through their mailbag and constituency surgeries, whenever there is a scientific issue coming before the House of Commons - take stem cell research - you have the local religious groups in your constituency wanting to come and see you. Actually they are by and large more active in coming to see you than the local doctors working in the NHS, which is an issue for the medical and scientific community to think about. But we are ourselves as democratic politicians aware of people’s anxieties and their concerns about some of these scientific issues – so that’s why there has to be a two-way street between politicians and scientists.’ 

Future uncertain

The morning after I saw David Willetts he gave his first big speech on science, concentrating on the economic case for investment in science and research.  It’s obvious, and hardly surprising, that public engagement has not yet found its way to the top of his In box. How to take the Science and Society initiative forward; how to encourage dialogue in the practitioners’ context; how to ensure that the outcomes of dialogues are considered by policy makers; how the government can look to its own procedures to build up public trust in those who make and carry out policy: these questions will have to wait.  The spending review, which will be published soon, will give some indication of how he will handle the community. 

Literally.  One of the Minister’s cufflinks reads, ‘Ayes’. The other, ‘Noes’.  It remains to be seen how this most alert of the political flock, perched high on his roost, will scan his portfolio, and where he will locate public engagement.  Let’s hope that the ayes will have it.

1 February 2010, Science and Mathematics Secondary Education for the 21st Century: Report of the Science and Learning Expert Group, for the Department of Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) Science and Society initiative

2 January 2010, Science and the Media: securing the Future: Report of the Science and the Media Expert Group, for the BIS Science and Society initiative

3 See People & Science, p7 of this issue

4 Lindsey Colbourne Associates (January 2010), Organisational Learning and Change for Public Engagement; prepared for the Science for All report – part of the Science and Society initiative for the Department of Business, Industry and Skills

5 May 2010, Ministerial Code, Cabinet Office.

6 The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (July 2010), Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making.

Wendy Barnaby
Wendy Barnaby in Editor of People & Science
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