By John Holmes, Head of Public Engagement with Science, Department for Business Innovation & Skills


I have now been Head of Public Engagement with Science at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) for just about 4 months. In that time I have met a lot of passionate people and been amazed at the amount of work going on this space.  So writing this piece has been a bit of indulgence and I hope you will forgive me, for what is a personal view but it has been very helpful to me in mapping out all the things we are working on. 

Additionally with the recent launch of the Government’s Science & Innovation Strategy, together with our response to the Science Capital Consultation and Capital Roadmap, it seemed like an appropriate time to shout about all the good work we have been doing to engage the public in science and why that is a vital part of the work of BIS. 

We know that public interest in science and innovation is high and rising. BIS published the latest Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey in 2014. The PAS explores the UK public’s attitudes towards science, as well as issues such as trust in scientists, and the extent to which the public want to be involved in science policy. 

The PAS 2014 study shows that the UK public are as enthusiastic about science as they ever have been and more now agree that “it is important to know about science in their daily life” (72% agree, versus 57% in 1988).

This survey has been running for over 25 years and is one of the resources used to underpin wider BIS activity.

BIS and Public Engagement

In the UK, we have a long tradition of engaging the public with science and engineering.

At grass-roots level, the BIS Science and Society Team support a vibrant outreach scene including 27,000 ‘STEM ambassadors’, one of the country’s largest volunteer forces, who visit schools and talk about their careers in science and engineering. BIS supports a number of initiatives, including British Science Week and the British Science Festival. Through BIS funding the British Science Association (BSA) is also piloting a new approach to stimulating a (nationwide) series of local debates, discussing scientific advances and policy questions in the context of local concerns. 

To support public involvement in development of emerging technologies and innovative and cutting edge science, BIS has been funding the Sciencewise Programme. Sciencewise is a national resource to support public bodies to commission and use public dialogue to inform their science and technology policies. 

This approach has helped to build legitimacy and accountability with the public, and contributes to greater trust in science-based decision making. For example, through Sciencewise, BIS has sponsored dialogue workshops on areas as diverse as mitochondrial DNA replacement, fracking and stratified medicine, which has helped to inform policy and given the public greater confidence in the science and technologies in question. The 16 projects completed between April 2012 and May 2014 involved over 7,000 members of the public. In September of last year Sciencewise was rated a very respectable 6th out of 32 diverse worldwide initiatives at the inaugural Open Government Awards

In addition the UK has an active and committed science journalism community including excellent science broadcasting in part facilitated by the Science Media Centre (SMC) which BIS helps to fund. Established in 2002 and the first of its kind, the SMC works at the science–media interface to provide accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering through the media, particularly on controversial and headline news stories when most confusion and misinformation occurs.

We know that having an open conversation with the public is a good thing, but don’t take my word for it. The following is a quote from Professor Lisa Jardine Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) talking to A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 describing her experience of engaging the public on the issue of mitochondrial DND replacement. 

“Over the past two years, the HFEA has carried out a consultation process with clinicians, scientists and the public in order to advise the present Government on whether this technique (mitochondrial replacement), which up until now has only been allowed in a research laboratory, should be introduced into clinical practice.

Perhaps surprisingly, the public supported the new technique if it could prevent serious illness. They had little objection to its being approved for clinical use as long as it was scrupulously overseen by an appropriate regulatory body.”

Organisations are beginning to understand the importance of engagement and 2014 saw BIS work in partnership with stakeholders from academia, industry, Government to create the science and society charter. The Charter provides framework for all organisations to embed public engagement as a core part of their work across all research activities. 

Looking forward, I am sure that 2015 is likely to present new challenges and opportunities, including the opportunity for greater coordination and joining up of public engagement activities. A key priority for BIS will be to make a success of the National Public Engagement Funders Forum which we have jointly established with the Wellcome Trust. The Forum brings together the major funders of public engagement with research with the aim of maximising the reach and impact of the sector. 

We should never forget that the public are the ultimate customer of research and new technologies and, without public support, neither can fulfil its potential. All these things are absolutely vital to ensure the successful translation of science from the bench to the marketplace. 2014 saw increase public confidence in, support for and improved engagement with scientific research and its innovative applications. In 2015 we will continue to work with all you to build on these successes and continue to improve public confidence in science.

Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society notes:

It is encouraging to see such a steady growth in support for science in recent years. Not only are people in support of the role science plays in our economy, but many see the intrinsic value in academic scientific endeavour and recognise science as an important part of our culture.