By Anna Perman, Communities Manager 

British Science Week was not just an opportunity to get involved in scientific activities, it also gave communities the chance to debate some scientific issues that affect them. Across the UK, communities came together in town halls and universities to hold decision-makers and scientists to account and show that science isn’t just for scientists.

At the British Science Association, we believe that issues that affect us all, like the Ebola outbreak and antibiotic resistance, should be debated by everyone, not just scientists. So we held and supported a range of debates on key policy issues across the UK.

Two of the debates I attended showed that people want to debate these issues and demonstrated why non-scientists bring so much to these discussions.

At the first debate, London without antibiotics at Conway Hall, an audience of over 170 people discussed the danger of growing resistance to antibiotics - the problem of resistance has been described as a ‘catastrophic threat’ by Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England

Our chair, former Newsnight Science Editor Susan Watts, put the audience’s questions to our panel – James Anderson from GlaxoSmithKline, microbiologist Dr Jenny Rohn, pharmacist Prof. Jayne Lawrence, Evening Standard journalist Rosamund Urwin, and Tris Dyson from the Longitude Prize, which will give £10 million to develop a diagnostic tool for bacterial infections. 

But the panel were only half the story. Our audience brought some great questions and perspective, including wanting to know about how much of pharmaceutical companies’ profits come from antibiotic use in agriculture, and asking whether we should be talking about preventing spread of disease through better hygiene, instead of relying on drugs? While some audience members wanted to make sure that they were able to get antibiotics when they needed them, some thought doctors are too "weak-kneed" and need to say no to patients more. From an on the night poll, we also found out that 35% of our audience had not finished a course of antibiotics - less than the 50% national average, assuming they were being honest.

Then on Friday, I was at Manchester Metropolitan University for a debate on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, asking whose responsibility it is to stop it. Professor Jo Verran from MMU gave us a brief introduction to infectious disease in general, before handing it over to our panel – Professor Mukesh Kapila, Professor Tom Solomon and Dr Salehya Ahsan, chaired by Beccy Meehan of BBC North West Tonight.

The panel were in agreement about the need for an integrated, multifactorial response to this particular outbreak, which has claimed over 8,000 lives. However, there was disagreement over whether the most urgent need was for public health interventions, or for a vaccination that would help save lives quickly. The audience were equally opinionated, with the World Health Organisation, Bob Geldof and Bill Gates coming in for a bit of a kicking about how the response to the crisis was handled.

I was really excited about the number of people who came to these debates, and I hope they went away a little more fired up about holding scientists and decision-makers to account. The British Science Association believes that if more people, not just scientists and politicians, get involved in these discussions, we’ll make better decisions. I think these debates show the potential for making better decisions when a wider range of society gets involved, but now we just need to give this opportunity to everyone in the UK!

If you agree, and there’s a topic you think we need to discuss as a society, you can find out some tips and advice about holding your own debate on our Policy Networks page.