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23/10/2014

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Science engagement is about opportunities

Karen Folkes lists recent openings

Karen Folkes lists recent openings

As a source of inspiration, the Bloodhound Super Sonic Car is a modern-day equivalent of the early steam locomotive: iconic, capturing the public interest. When it rolls out on the South African desert plain in two years’ time its stream-lined glamour and 1,000 mph land speed will inspire many to study of science and engineering.

In fact, it is already doing that, with over 5,000 schools already engaged in the project and 500 Bloodhound ambassadors. One of those, Jess Herbert, who was ‘bitten’ by the Bloodhound at age 13, is now a Rolls Royce apprentice working on the project.  She met David Willetts in July when he opened the new Technical Facility in Bristol, where he also announced a further £1 million funding to enhance this project’s already impressive programme of outreach and inspiration for the engineers of tomorrow.

Other opportunities       

Bloodhound is proving an effective morale-booster forUKscience but it’s not the only one. We need to take other opportunities too.

There are many harder-to-tackle issues which don’t offer a smooth ride for science and society and which demand extensive and often long-term debate and discussion. This last quarter has seen a number of such discussions which have been partly managed by BIS delivery partner Sciencewise.

GM debate

Using his Guest Directorship at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June, David Willetts began what we hoped might be a fresh debate on the GM issue. Organised by BBSRC and Sciencewise, it was clear that the participants valued the fact that the Minister was taking part and listening to what they had to say whilst also being prepared to put forward the government’s views about the opportunities presented by GM, in the context of the now published Agri-tech strategy.

The report of the ‘Farming for the Future’ public discussion, including a link to a YouTube video of David Willetts’ introduction, is now on the Sciencewise website.

Mitochondrial DNA

A similar process of reflection was set in train on techniques for managing mitochondrial DNA.

Following the HFEA’s initial consultation, and public dialogue, Jeremy Hunt agreed with their recommendation to move forward with drafting regulations for consultation to allow mitochondria replacement techniques to be used in clinical treatment, subject to strict safeguards.  The debate is still ongoing: as for example in the Shorts in this issue.

Bovine TB

Another current opportunity which is just kicking off as part of the Sciencewise public dialogue programme is to look at the spread of bovine TB and the issues it raises for badger culling and wildlife in general - the changing biodiversity that goes with the nature of farming. The dialogue is about the future direction of bovine TB policy and the outputs will be used alongside Defra's consultation that is taking place at the moment to inform the development of the bTB eradication strategy.

PE triangle

Regular readers of People & Science may remember the ‘Triangle of Public Engagement’ developed by the Science for All group a few years ago.

This showed a broad span of purposes in the whole PE landscape, from transmitting information, receiving views (for example, from the public), collaborating to co-create policies and opportunities, and everything in between.

This is reflected in the opportunities here, from detailed dialogue work on sometimes vexed scientific issues to charismatic, feel-good projects like Bloodhound. But the thinking of the emerging Science and Society Review is that taking advantage of opportunities in all corners of the triangle and in between is the best approach to meet our vision and aims. Using those opportunities to ensure we’re going beyond the usual suspects, and making the most of our partners’ expertise and linkages, will be the mainstay of our future approach.

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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 (BIS)
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