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Mind the gap

Business as usual during the summer recess, says Karen Folkes

The early summer months in Government are usually a time of heightened activity as we head towards recess. In the midst of an HE White Paper, official visits to China, Brazil and Poland, there has also been some space in the diary of science and universities minister David Willetts to keep the science engagement narrative going. This has included a weekend trip to the Cheltenham Science Festival, evening events at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and the unveiling of the Yuri Gagarin statue outside the British Council.  Such events generate new contacts across the science community – and new areas of interest for us to follow up.

But contrary to popular belief, government doesn’t close down during the parliamentary recess. Our future challenges (and something for us to pursue during this time) will include following up these ministerial interests and building on Public Attitudes to Science 2011 (see People & Science, June 2011, p5).

Public Attitudes survey

Having published our results in May, it was good to be able to finally gauge reaction during June’s Science Communication Conference when the implications of the study’s findings were discussed in more detail. We got the chance to explore if, and how the results could actually be useful in practice.

In particular, we asked the people at the session to reflect on the six broad attitudinal groups which Ipsos Mori's research had identified, and the potential ways in which they might be useful for those at the coalface of science communication. There was some discussion about the value, or danger, of labelling or categorising people, whether it was the role of the science communicator to engage with all groups, and whether we should be trying to turn all those classified ‘Indifferent’ or ‘Disengaged Sceptics’ into enthusiastic and engaged cheerleaders for science. The difficulty of identifying and reaching the groups in the first place was also raised. These are questions which equally engage us as policymakers. A report of the session is on the British Science Association website.

Academies collaboration

Another interesting development is our collaboration to develop a STEM diversity programme with both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.  A joint academy lead on diversity will provide this challenging issue with the profile it needs, at a time when securing talent from all in the science and engineering workforce is vital to economic recovery.

Expert groups

The work of our Expert groups continues, with more actions completed:

In September, the research commissioned by BIS and Royal Academy of Engineering on business motivations for public engagement is published. It shows, unsurprisingly, that businesses don’t use the same language as the science community, either for public engagement or STEM education. See p19 of this issue.

The research phase of Sciencewise’s work on the ‘Science, trust and public engagement’ project is now complete and the report will be available soon. We hope this will be of interest to all those concerned with how governance structures impact on engagement.

Continued funding

David Willetts has confirmed that BIS will continue to fund Sciencewise.

We can also now confirm our support for key national science engagement activities next year: the Big Bang Fair, National Science and Engineering Week and the National Science and Engineering Competition. The regional Big Bang Fairs were once again a success but the competition also relies on entrants from the self-nomination which closes on 31 October 2011.

A major focus in these tougher economic times is evaluating such activities to ensure that we’re getting value for money and delivering real impact.


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Karen Folkes is Deputy Head of the science and Society team of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills




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Karen Folkes
Karen Folkes is Deputy Head of the science and Society team of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
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