The Science for All Expert Group, which I was privileged to chair, produced its report and action plan in February. The group was one of five which constituted the government’s Science and Society initiative.
From the outset we took the view, as a group, that though we would doubtless wish to make suggestions and exhortations to government, many of the solutions to the challenges we identified lay in our own hands. Government can help unlock doors but it cannot make everything happen. That is our collective responsibility, not least from those of us who receive significant funding from the public purse. In essence, many of the challenges we identified boil down to questions of attitudes and culture, and to states of mind and behaviours. To address these challenges effectively requires a sustained process of discussion and joint activity among all those who have an interest in engendering a healthy relationship between the sciences and the public. So, what does this mean in practice?
Following the publication of the action plan we received a range of comments on the website , and much informal feedback. A follow-up group, consisting of several members of the original group and some fresh faces committed to deliver the plan, met on 30 March. We reviewed the plan, and the notes of our meeting and update on progress are published on the website.
We have taken the view that we need no formal organisation, like the COPUS of old, to take this work forward. Inevitably there will be a core group of activists who will continue to self-select in that they bring significant resource (in kind, cash, or both) and commitment to lead delivery of parts of the plan, but we welcome additional volunteers.
Keeping the action plan live
The follow-up group will continue to monitor the plan, meeting every 2-3 months, following which updates will be posted. Anyone, of course, can continue to comment through the website or directly to me or others involved. We envisage that actions will be added or dropped in time, and I suppose the ultimate aim is to cross them all off successfully!
By the time this article appears the Science Communication Conference will have taken place, with an opportunity for many people involved in public engagement to discuss the plan directly.
Current lines of work
A glance at the update of the plan will show that work is progressing on many fronts. Significant broad areas underway include embedding public engagement within institutional structures and processes, and a focus on professional training and development.
More specifically, there will be some immediate work to explore the motivations and purposes for the business sector in public engagement, and to scope more detailed mapping work so that we all have a better picture of activities and support structures across the UK, their strengths and weaknesses, and any evident gaps.
It is clear from feedback that the original plan did not sufficiently address the role of the increasing cadre of professional science communicators (as opposed to researchers and practitioners who communicate directly) and public engagement with science (rather than public engagement for scientists). This is being picked up specifically in the follow-up work.
In the context of a change of administration, whose nature should be known by the time this piece appears, it is clearly an open question as to how government will support this work. This is not, on the whole, a politically contentious area, and it seems to me that the collaborative approach we are seeking to build has a good chance of finding resonance with any colour of administration where further direct support would be helpful.