Investment in technologies has the potential to contribute to the UK’s economic growth. But what does the public think?
‘The great eight’
In November 2012, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, described science as a driver of the UK economy. At his speech at the Royal Society he challenged the scientific community of Britain to lead the world in what are now known as ‘the eight great technologies’. These are:
- the big data revolution and energy efficient computing
- Synthetic biology
- Regenerative medicine
- Energy storage
- Advanced materials
- Robotics and autonomous systems
- Satellites and commercial applications of space.
The aim is to make the most of the UK’s scientific and intellectual leadership in order to gain major economic benefits from these technologies. Business, the research community and the government should together bridge the ‘valley of death’ between discovery and commercialisation.
The missing piece
The UK population is the other major stakeholder in all these technologies. What are our views as tax payers and consumers? Do we even want to be involved in shaping science policy?
The 2010 Sciencewise review of ethical dimensions of sciences  shows that public trust in government to stand firm against perceived vested interest in industry is low.
At the same time the government is seen as a key player in shaping the social distribution of science and technology impacts and ensuring that the benefits are equitable. And at least those who were involved in past public dialogues consistently demand far more open discussion and public involvement in policymaking.
From these findings alone one might infer that initiatives that put together business, research community and government should have clear routes to involve the public.
A recent public dialogue  on emerging policy issues commissioned by Sciencewise helps us identify high-priority policy areas involving science and technology, which the public sees as benefitting most from greater public involvement. Interestingly these are related to the great eight:
- Feeding a larger and more wealthy global population (agri-science)
- Rising cost of high quality health and medical care (regenerative medicine and robotics & autonomous systems)
- Keeping the lights on whilst reducing carbon emissions (energy storage)
- Meeting the UK’s long-term skills requirements (arguably cuts across all technologies as new skills will be required)
- Machines to make decisions and carry out tasks (robotics & autonomous systems)
The Public Attitudes to Science Survey 2014  which will be launched in March will provide further insights into public attitudes towards many aspects of science and technology.
Social intelligence reports
Meanwhile, Sciencewise is producing social intelligence reports that provide a snapshot of public views on the great eight technologies. These are to help those working on these topics.
Six reports  are already published and five are under way.
As usual, there are interesting insights from the public in these reports. For instance, the robotics and autonomous system report shows evidence that the public is conflicted about military applications. There doesn’t seem to be support for using autonomous systems to care for an ageing population and there are tensions between potential economic growth and loss of jobs.
Also, whilst there is a great deal of information available about public views on nanomaterials, it is not clear if public views on this topic are being considered when making strategic investment decisions in new materials such as graphene.
Get in touch!
These lines are not enough to summarise all the results coming from the social intelligence reports so I invite you to read them. And why not help us put the pieces together: what did you find useful? What could be improved? Is there anything missing? Who should consider this information?