For an Association that has operated since 1831, ten years is a fleeting moment; yet it is a period in which I have seen a notable shift in discourse about public engagement with the sciences, and some signs of wider culture change.

Goodbye to COPUS

I arrived in September 2002, after a period as acting Head of the Science Museum, to a flurry of debate around the role of COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, jointly organised by the British Science Association (then known as the BA), the Royal Society and the Royal Institution.

It was clear to me, and to many others, that the top-down and somewhat exclusive model represented by COPUS no longer carried widespread support and was inappropriate in a more diverse landscape. In consequence, COPUS was abolished, in Lord Sainsbury’s office, at a meeting involving Stephen Cox, Susan Greenfield and me.

The Office of Science and Technology then commissioned the Association to carry out a consultation on science and society among stakeholders, on quite a short timescale. This report identified some directions that were I think helpful at the time, and that were later explored in greater depth in the Science for All report and action plan, which was commissioned by the - as it transpired - outgoing Labour Government; Lord Drayson at that time being in the Ministerial seat.

Broad church

The change in rhetoric towards public understanding, public engagement and public dialogue in recent years has been well explored in a recent paper by Pieczka and Escobar.

They point out the overwhelming influence of what one might call traditional public understanding of science approaches in discussions about public engagement. They question the viability of public dialogue as the mainstream activity in science communication and policy-making.

We noted in our analysis in the Science for All report the many different objectives expressed in the broad church of public engagement. It is essential to recognise this multiplicity; to embrace it but also to understand it.

Main mode

The ‘educate and inspire’ aim of traditional science communication remains important, and is still the predominant mode. Perhaps it will always remain so, as so many organisations seek, both on the basis of legitimate self-interest and wider values about the importance of public education in a democracy, to contribute to informal science learning. The recent Wellcome Trust research into this has given us useful pointers for the future.

The British Science Association continues to play a major role here, through the annual British Science Festival, National Science & Engineering Week, our local Branches, the CREST Awards, and the National Science + Engineering Competition at the Big Bang Fair, which we were instrumental in establishing.

Festivals and Fair

The widespread interaction of scientists with other members of the public can lead to all sorts of unpredictable conversations and exchanges of ideas.

In this area of public engagement, a couple of things stand out over the ten-year period. One is the massive growth in science festivals (many springing out of events stimulated initially by National Science & Engineering Week), and the infiltration of science into other types of festival.

A second is the development of the Big Bang Fair, which was initiated by the British Science Association and Young Engineers, and taken up with real enthusiasm by EngineeringUK. It has helped bring far more attention, nationally and regionally, to efforts to encourage young people into science and engineering, brought institutions together in collective effort, and given a proper national showcase for the outstanding creative abilities in science and engineering of the UK’s young people, competing through the National Science + Engineering Competition.


The move towards public dialogue, reflecting an actual public involvement in thinking about priorities and directions for science and technology, is far less developed. That is hardly surprising. It requires an openness and receptiveness, not to mention a belief in its legitimacy and value, which is not yet widespread. The institutional signals are there: the Research Councils’ Concordat; the higher education institutions’ Manifesto for Public Engagement and the work of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE); the ‘open policy’ agenda of the Civil Service Reform process; and the existence of Sciencewise, the BIS-funded programme to encourage the effective use of public dialogue in policy-making involving science and technology.

I welcomed it when the Association became a partner in delivering the current phase of Sciencewise, since it enables us to build on our experience of deliberative dialogue and a wide understanding of engagement to make a contribution.

Citizen science

Dialogue has much further to go, and is starting to chime with the citizen science movement. This, for me, is one of the great opportunities, both for science and democracy, for the next ten years.

Ranging from crowdsourcing at one end, whether for data collection or analysis, to co-design and development of research at the other, there are huge opportunities for different and deeper relationships between scientists and the interested public.


In recent years new media, and especially blogs and Twitter, have allowed many more voices to be heard in science communication than previously. This can only be welcome, but it has brought with it, or coincided with, the rise of the self-proclaimed ‘geeks’, and an uncompromising approach to what is defined by some as ‘anti-science’. Recent altercations following a New Statesman article illustrated the tensions, and eventually led to some productive exchanges on blogs, in which there was perhaps some recognition of the ability of philosophers, historians and social scientists to comment usefully on the nature of science.

There remains much to be done here if there is to be mutual respect and fruitful conversations between practising and communicating natural scientists and those who have studied the history and philosophy of the sciences, including social scientists. For either ‘side’ to belittle the knowledge and perspectives of the other would be a great shame. For me, one of the most depressing characteristics of some in these debates is the use of ridicule, not least with respect to some public views, including those of religious origin. It demeans those using it and has no place in rational and constructive discussions.

Question of balance

As I write this piece, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) is finalising its review of what it is appropriate for central government to fund in relation to science and society. This is likely to have a significant effect on the landscape, but my hope is that government will recognise and support those national networks and programmes without which the vast array of disparate activity would lack consistent platforms, support and cohesion.

It would be so easy to slip back into a state of a thousand flowers blooming (and dying), a repeated reinvention of wheels and a lack of critical mass. The balance between national leadership and enabling, and local relevance and ownership is always a tricky one, in politics as in public engagement.

The British Science Association, with its national programmes and local membership, has always tried to find the best balance. That remains a continuing challenge for my successor, Imran Khan, whom I wish, with the superb staff and volunteers of the Association, all the best for the future.