Scientists should do more, maintains Paul Hardaker
As Barry Parsons says (People & Science September 2011, p22) , scientists have to take some responsibility for not engaging more effectively with the public around the fact that, in science, we rarely find ourselves dealing in absolute certainties. That’s especially true when making forecasts.
Take my own discipline of meteorology. We have had some significant challenges communicating weather forecasts and climate predictions, and the science behind these. Common to both is the understanding and working with uncertainty. The last Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change Assessment Report went a long way to try to put bounds and descriptions on the uncertainty in our understanding of why our climate is changing and by how much. It was a reasonable start but, despite this, around half of those surveyed in the UK still believe that humans are not affecting the climate and it will not be an issue for them, so we know we need to do much more.
Richard Feynman famously talked of how important uncertainty is for science. To scientists, uncertainty means knowledge: it means some things are more certain than others, it often means we can understand the relative importance of the different aspects we are studying, and without it we would have difficulty in focusing our research efforts in to those areas where we can make greatest progress. However to those outside of science, aside from perhaps those businesses who are more used to working with risk, uncertainty often means ‘We don’t know’.
It is clearly not about turning people into scientists, but do we do enough as a science community to explain to the public, policy makers and the media about how science works, and to engage with people about our research? No, I don’t believe we do. And do we have enough in our curriculum about educating our young people to understand uncertainty? – well, probably not.
Lay summaries bridge the gap, maintains Liz Lyon
Apropos of your feature ‘Engaging patients’ in the September 2011 issue of People & Science (pp16-17), I would like to share the findings of the Patients Participate! (PP) project with your readers.
The growing volume, complexity and jargon of much health-related literature presents significant barriers to access and understanding for the lay public.
PP examined the value of the lay summary as a mechanism to bridge the gap between information access and public understanding of health-related information. We also explored the feasibility of creating crowd-sourced lay summaries for peer-reviewed articles in UK PubMed Central (UKPMC). The project focussed specifically on stem-cell research as a thematic area of study.
Following a consultation workshop with contributions from patients, academic researchers, funding bodies, health charity organisations including the Association of Medical Research Charities, it was clear that many medical research charities would support the ability to link to lay summaries on UKPMC. There was also a strong vote for guidelines and templates to assist the writing of lay summaries, as well as mechanisms for gathering feedback on their value and usefulness from their intended audiences.
Researchers from the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Bath recognised that wider engagement is increasingly important, and that further training for new postgraduates would be valuable. We believe that pro-active support from research funding agencies, and from publishers, will help to drive momentum; for example, PLoS Medicine includes a lay summary with every article.
PP is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils. It is led by UKOLN, the organization for library and information networking, at the University of Bath.
More information including a full list of project partners, workshop report, case studies, briefing paper and a guide on how to write a lay summary, is at http://blogs.ukoln.ac.uk/patientsparticipate/ .