How far should people have a say in the content and direction of scientific research? Each new scientific advance that raises ethical concerns fires this debate afresh. After all, a great deal of research is funded by public money so shouldn’t the public have a vote on how that money is spent?
Many scientists welcome the debate and engage with public audiences enthusiastically. Others are more sceptical, pointing out that, while the Government’s announcement that there will be free access to all publicly funded research is welcome, there is a limit to how far non-scientists will be able to understand the science involved and that scientists already have more than enough to do without explaining it in detail to a lay public. Some scientists argue that there is not just one public but many, ranging from those who are informed and interested to those who know very little about the subject in question and are content to let the scientists get on with it. Which public should they address? Others aver that science is not per se moral or immoral, that ethical issues can only be raised by the application of science through technology, so science should not be constrained on any moral ground
The debate is likely to run and run, and it seems unlikely to reach a final conclusion in the near future, but what is certain is that the public has much more information available about science than ever before and many more scientists are engaged with public audiences than, say, twenty years ago.
The British Science Association has been in the vanguard of public engagement with science since its foundation in 1831. Through its programmes it addresses public audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Its aim is to celebrate science in all its aspects and to affirm science as a prime cultural force. Its proud boast is that it brings more people face to face with scientists than any other organisation in the UK, whether through the British Science Festival, National Science & Engineering Week or the CREST Award schemes for young people. These encounters give audiences the chance to learn about the subject and to question the direction of research and raise concerns about ethical and societal issues.
The Association, Janus-like, faces two ways: towards the public and towards scientists. For the latter it acts like an impresario, encouraging public engagement and providing the platforms for it to take place. While the debate on public engagement continues, the Association, through all its activities, gets on with the job, striving to provide a benchmark of excellence for all to aim at.
Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
President of the British Science Association