By Clio Heslop, Cultural Partnerships Manager, British Science Association

Scientific and technological advances are continuing to merge the physical, digital and biological worlds – disrupting the status quo and changing perceptions of the creators, owners and users. Our 2018 Huxley Summit, taking place later this week in London, focuses on public perceptions; what causes public opinion of science and technology to change, what we can learn from the past to better prepare for the future, and how we can respond to risk and uncertainty.  

The theme of this year’s Summit has many practical applications for the roles of business leaders and policy makers. When making key decisions involving health, science and technology, they and their organisations must deal with a large volume of information, including the statistical evidence of risks and benefits, plus the social, practical and cultural factors of the change they are proposing. In these situations, they need to be confident about what information to prioritise, which opinion to trust, and that the decision they take is the correct one.  

Additionally, public perceptions are not fixed; they are influenced by wider societal issues impacting on public trust. These shifts of public perception of risk affect the systems which support our policy-making processes. For examplecommunication of risk can impact the success of short-term responses to events such as disease outbreaks or data breaches; or more long-term societal behaviour change, such as healthy living guidelines.  

Together with Huxley Summit major partners, Diageo, we hope to encourage the greater use of evidence-based decision making among policy makers, businesses, academics and beyond, and this year’s Summit provides the perfect platform to start this conversation.  

On 9 October, in the lead up to the Summit, we convened a roundtable discussion chaired by Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the Human Tissue Authority and former Minister for Public Health and Innovation; which included expertise from policy, industry and science. We talked about the challenges different sectors experience when applying risk to policymaking, best practice in risk communication, how public trust applies to risk, and how organisations could adapt their processes to better use the concept of risk in policy. We used this conversation to create a short guide on improving the understanding and communication of risk across society.

Download the guide (pdf)  

So, how can policy makers, business leaders, and scientists ensure that they are communicating the risks and opportunities of new technologies in a clear and trustworthy way? The key recommendations that came from the discussion were:  

  1. Risk factors should be communicated clearly and consistently, and should use principles of evidence synthesis; 
  2. Businesses and policy makers should create organisational structures which support decision-making (such as independent, cross-sector expert or advisory groups); 
  3. Engage with the public over a long period, and allow for shifts in public opinion; 
  4. It is important to measure how effective regulations or guidelines are in changing behaviours. Impact measurement should inform a mechanism for timely action which responds to public attitudes and behaviours. 

Reflecting on this work, and from past Huxley Summits, the public has always been at the heart of our debate. Businesses, charities, and public sector organisations can no longer take for granted that their message is trusted and accepted by the public. We must listen to public concerns and ultimately drive innovation for their benefit and build resilience to withstand risks that are still unknown to us. We believe the first step is better cross-sector understanding and collaboration, and look forward to enabling this through the Huxley Summit later this week 

Follow the debate, using the hashtag: #HuxleySummit