A group of Australian universities has launched a news website  called The Conversation as a place where academics can write on topics related to their expertise for the general public.
Raising the level of public debate
`One of the main ideas is to raise the level of public debate in Australia. Areas such as science, to give just one example, receive scant coverage in the mainstream media, unless the story fits into a certain narrative,’ Section Editor, Science and Technology, Paul Dalgarno, told People & Science.
But science writer Martin Ince has doubts: `If you look at most fields of life, people realise that journalism exists for the readers. It’s only scientists that have trouble with this concept and think that journalism is about the people who are being written about. The worst danger of The Conversation is if it means scientists… pretend they don’t need journalism.’
However, he also welcomed the urge to communicate: `I think we should praise that scientists are going to talk about their work to the rest of the world.’
Dr. Peter Geoghegan of the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh, is editor of Political Insight magazine and a writer and journalist himself. `I don’t think you should have to work in a university to read and follow academic debates,’ he said. `Most academics are interested in getting their research out to a wider audience in a way that doesn’t cherrypick some elements of it at the expense of others. Having a forum where that can happen is, I think, a really good idea.’
However, Ince has more reservations. `If you actually look at the Conversation website… it’s got a pretty traditional mixture… of press releases, news stories and stories by scientists,’ he commented, continuing, `But not all scientists want to write about their research for a general audience, and so the problem with this approach is that you might get important stories not being written. What I don’t really get any idea of is how editorial judgment is applied to see what are the important stories.’
Dalgarno explained how The Conversation obtains its content. `Much of what we do is commissioning comment and analysis pieces from experts, or those involved in work that is going on within universities… to write something unique for us,’ he explained. `All authors have a profile page [saying] who they are and what their expertise is. They also have to fill out a disclosure statement.’
Parliament could have something to learn from the science public engagement community, according to Andrew Miller MP. Miller, who chairs the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology, thinks that Parliament’s ability to engage the public with science is ‘very, very challenging’. `The scientific community took earlier strides than Parliament did to engage the public,’ he told People & Science, adding, ‘There have been some very positive changes in the recent past.’
A three-way conversation?
Miller’s comments come after ScienceWise published a review  of past public engagement on genetic modification (GM). ScienceWise manager Diane Warburton, who contributed to the report, told People & Science:`There can be quite entrenched views on GM, which makes it a very interesting and very political issue. What ScienceWise has always tried to do is to put the public into that conversation as well, so that it’s a three-way conversation between scientists, the public and whoever’s making the decision.’
Engaging in democracy
Parliament has been seeking to improve the way it engages the public with the political process. It held its first `Parliament Week’ in October with a programme of activities and events around the UK to build greater engagement with parliamentary democracy.
The Hansard Society recently looked at how public engagement could be improved, specifically with three focus groups: with first-time voters, with parliamentary officials, and with MPs and peers. Beccy Allen, one of the co-authors of the society’s Parliament 20:20 report , summarised their findings. `The first-time voters wanted Parliament or MPs to come out to them as well as using methods… such as TV, social media and YouTube... They wanted to get a real sense of who the politicians were as people,’ she said.
The officials and parliamentarians were less focused on two-way engagement than in putting out information for the public. Allen explained, `One official said, “Everything is political here. It’s not straightforward. Information is a tool for politicians to use against each other.” Parliament sees its role very differently from MPs. [Officials have to be careful to provide] balanced information.’
Miller sees some scope for hope: `A few months back I went to a really, really good Royal Society of Chemistry lecture that was aimed at the public. Could Parliament do something like that on an apolitical basis and have public debates that put the work of Parliament into context?’ he pondered, adding, `Parliament does [already] do that but only on a very small scale.’
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will delay an experiment to study the effect of spraying water into the atmosphere 1km above ground, from a long hose held up by a helium-filled balloon. A spokesman told People & Science,`Test-bed deployment is unlikely to go ahead before next April; this will give time for wider stakeholder engagement.'
The British Ecological Society will be celebrating a public-focused Centenary Festival of ecology in the summer of 2013. The Society invites applications from UK-based institutions, to bid for funding to put on ecological themed events during the festival period by 16 December 2011.
The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has been taking oral evidence from former and current Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers on their roles within departments and whether they are able to give impartial advice.
A new book (Constructing Culture of Science: Communication of Science in India and China) collates Indian and Chinese best practice on science communication. Editor Gauhar Raza from India’s National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair) says it shows `that India lacks… data…[whereas] China every two years conducts a Scientific Literacy Survey.’
The public supports research on geoengineering, according to a new survey conducted in the UK, US and Canada. 72 per cent of 3,105 respondents approved, according to the researchers. Professor David Keith of Harvard University said: ‘Support for geoengineering is spread across the political spectrum and is linked to support for science [and] concern about climate change.’
The European Commission’s Science in Society (SIS) Programme has called for proposals for Mobilisation and Mutual Learning Action Plans (MMLs) to bring together researchers and the wider community. MMLs should connect research and SIS activities, such as public engagement, to find solutions that develop and use scientific and technological knowledge in the public interest. Deadline for proposals: 22 February 2012.
The International Council for Science (ICSU) has revised its Principle of Universality (freedom and responsibility) of Science to require scientists to `communicate scientific work with integrity’. Howard Moore, Senior Advisor at ICSU, told People & Science this means `not only interactions between scientists and scientific communities but also between scientists and society in general.’
Scientists for Global Responsibility has criticised a BBC2 Horizon programme (Is nuclear power safe?) for insufficient balance and factual errors. The BBC told People & Science, `This was an authored film by Professor Jim Al-Khalili, a recognised expert... We acknowledge other viewpoints in the film and... it was factually accurate.'