Recent research1 has shown that a public information campaign run by the Department of Health (DH) during the swine flu pandemic reassured the public and had some effect at changing behaviour.
Dr James Rubin from King’s College London, one of the authors of the report, told People & Science, `We looked at a vast amount of telephone survey data collected by DH. We found there were very low levels of worry in the community. Over the course of the pandemic somewhere between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of respondents reported being worried about the risk of catching swine flu.’
He continued: `However, people who’d heard anything from DH advertising were more likely to carry tissues and more likely to have bought disinfectant hand gel. So the DH communications were effective at influencing behaviour, and the reason they were effective is because they increased the perceived efficacy of these behaviours.’
‘Our key recommendation for future campaigns is to focus on efficacy: “we’re recommending these behaviours because we know they work, and this is how they work and this is why they work.” That would really increase uptake among the general public.’
Dr Dean Marshall, a GP and one of the British Medical Association’s leads on swine flu has some concerns about how messages reach the public. He told People & Science: `I’m certainly reassured that the public campaign had an impact but we had people coming to GP practices asking for a vaccination, having been told by official announcements in the press that vaccinations were available when they weren’t.’
He continued: ` There was a lot of conflicting information and unfortunately journalists and the media have to accept a certain amount of criticism for publishing articles that were more opinion than fact. DH struggled to counter some of that. The evidence on the swine flu vaccination was that it was safe, which was the agreed position of all sides, and then we had a lot of stories about it being an untested vaccine that was unsafe.’
James Rubin agrees that the government and media can be poor at communicating risk: `About 50 per cent of the public, consistently, thought people were making too much fuss out of swine flu. Our hunch is that they’ve been here too many times before. If you think of SARS or flesh-eating bacteria, or Y2K or the health risks of mobile phones, we’re constantly bombarding the public with messages about risks that don’t always materialise. So how do we convince people that actually, this time we do really mean it?’
1 Health Technology Assessment 2010; 14: 34, pp.183–266
As US researchers announce the first safety trials based on human embryonic stem cells of a treatment for spinal injuries, new research1 on public engagement (PE) and stem cell research has found PE activities have `considerable scope to (re)build trust in science.’
Dr Sarah Parry of Edinburgh University and her colleagues organised a PE event to see whether dialogue between scientists and others could increase trust in science. They recorded scientists and members of the public discussing the regulation of stem cell research and the Hwang affair, in which a South Korean stem cell researcher admitted fraud. They analysed discussion transcripts to understand factors behind trust in science and found that the event’s ethic of mutual respect favoured a presumption of trust between the scientists and non-scientists taking part.
However, Parry warned: `We should be very cautious about using public engagement to rebuild trust, because [it] exists in a wider political context, in which particular world views are privileged, particularly those of scientists. Public engagement should not be about consensus building, [which is] actually a mechanism for silencing people.’
Professor Andy Stirling of the University of Sussex offers an alternative to consensus-building for science policy PE.2 He told People & Science: `If you aim to illuminate different possible answers, equally valid, from the exercise, then people relax more and they’ll be more able to say “yes, we disagree majorly on factor X but on A, B and C we absolutely agree”.’
He continued: `We [shouldn’t] say: “Embryonic stem cells, shall we do it or not?” We [should] say: “Well, under these conditions and views, then this would be the right kind of way of handling it, but under these conditions and views, that would be the right way. We can tell you in some detail why that is, but we can’t tell the political process which of those is definitely the way to go, because we didn’t actually agree on it.” It is elected politicians who should be accountable for the final decision.’
Discounting public views
Dr Charles Thorpe of the University of California and and Dr Jane Gregory of University College London see another danger. Their recently published work3 concerns PE and nanotechnology. Thorpe told People & Science: `I’m all for public engagement, but there’s a fundamental tension between a market imperative to develop [new] technologies and the desire to genuinely involve the public in the shaping of science and technology. [The problem is] not that the public can be manipulated, it’s that the public can be ignored.’
1 S. Bates, W. Faulkner, S. Parry and S. Cunningham-Burley (2010) How do we know it’s not been done yet?! Trust, trust building and regulation in stem cell research. Science as Public Policy (forthcoming)
2 A. Stirling (2008) Engaging Futures: ‘opening up’ choices on science and technology in The Road Ahead: Public dialogue on science and technology. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, London. 2008. http://tinyurl.com/2vjtnfz 
3 C. Thorpe and J. Gregory (2010) Producing the Post-Fordist Public: The Political Economy of Public Engagement with Science. Science as Culture (forthcoming). DOI: 10.3152/030234210X12778118264495 http://tinyurl.com/27vux3w 
Staff at UK and European science and discovery centres have raised concerns with the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom over its decision to award a Quality Badge to the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm. The Zoo, near Bristol, reminds visitors ‘of the contemporary science that points to Creation plus evolution of species’.
Only 3 per cent of the Chinese population is scientifically literate, according to a 2010 survey by the China Research Institute for Science Popularization. The survey is the ninth since 1992. Questions included whether they had ever tried fortune telling based on birth data. The score is an increase from 2.25 per cent in 2007.
Siemens is to build a £30million landmark sustainability centre in London’s Docklands. ‘I hope the Siemens Pavilion will act as a catalyst for wider community involvement in the debate about how we best address the challenge of climate change in our cities,’ said Andreas J. Goss, Chief Executive of Siemens plc.
The Royal Society has awarded first Kavli Education Medal to Professor Celia Hoyles, Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics from London University’s Institute of Education. ‘I am sure the Royal Society Kavli Education Medal will enhance the status of science and mathematics education,’ she told People & Science.
FameLab is successfully developing young scientists as science communicators, and engaging general audiences with science, according to a paper published in Science Communication. ‘The [talent show] medium transfers very well in all kinds of cultures, and that’s one of the main elements of its success,’ scientist-author Dr George Zarkadakis told People & Science. http://tinyurl.com/22n9mdz 
The National Science and Engineering Week Awards will not be running in 2011, its funder, Research Councils UK, has announced. ‘RCUK are supporting festivals including the Bath Literature Festival and the Big Bang Fair, all of which take place during National Science and Engineering Week 2011,’ an RCUK spokesperson told People & Science.
A new Concordat for engaging the public with research is being launched in December, to clarify the expectations and responsibilities of research funders, including Research Councils UK (RCUK), with respect to public engagement. ‘[It] will help the academic community consider the effectiveness of their approaches,’ Professor Alan Thorpe, Chair of RCUK, told People & Science.
The public engagement community is nervous about government funding in the face of spending cuts. The EPSRC has already axed its Partnerships for Public Engagement scheme, saying ‘It has always been our intention to integrate [public engagement] within EPSRC’s portfolio… The importance EPSRC places on high quality public engagement has not diminished.’