By Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association

You could say that the COVID-19 pandemic has engaged more people with science than anything else since the first moon landing gripped the world in 1969. Scientists are all over the news, we are all having to change our daily routines and we are getting daily updates on R numbers, vaccines, hospital capacity and the like.

The pandemic, and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, has highlighted existing societal and healthcare inequalities for certain groups (people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, people from low socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people) and the need for more tailored engagement and communication with different communities.

The British Science Association’s new President Professor Lord Ara Darzi brought together leaders from community groups, business, research and politics on Thursday 8 October 2020 to discuss what science engagement should look like post COVID-19.

He asked: how do we address power inequalities in public health and science engagement and ensure that our organisations and systems are actively and respectfully engaging, involving and empowering disadvantaged people and communities?

Here are my main takeaways from the discussion:

  1. Relevance is key

Science still seems too distant for many in our society. The pandemic is not just a health or science crisis, it is a social and economic crisis. For many people, science simply isn’t that important when they are thinking ‘how will I put food on the table tonight?’

Science hasn’t been a priority for those engaged in delivering services to disadvantaged and vulnerable communities – more a question of survival.

Therefore science, and science engagement activities, need to relate much more to people’s everyday lives and experiences. This is likely to mean that the science sector needs to get better at finding out and understanding what people want from science, i.e. scientists need to listen before they talk.

  1. We need to shift our understanding of what science is

Science should not be portrayed as something that provides ‘magic bullet’ solutions. Instead, we should show that science is a set of tools we can engage with every day to help us understand problems and find solutions. Access to these tools is empowering.

  1. All parts of our society need to be better represented in science

We need to listen better to what communities are saying about their needs and priorities. ‘Minorities’ are heterogenous – it’s time we stopped using the term “BAME” and instead, work to improve representation from all people and communities who have long been under-represented in science and in public life.

  1. If you focus on the most vulnerable, everyone benefits

Our priority should be to find ways to listen to the voices of people and communities who are not often heard. Those of us in science establishments need to find ways to ‘walk in the shoes of others’ to find out what really matters to them personally, and then use that understanding to shape our research priorities, our communications and the way we work with community partners.  

  1. Trust and confidence in science needs to be rebuilt

This topic was threaded throughout the course of our conversation. Trust in politicians and scientists is fragile. Yet, there has never been a more important time for society to have trust in science – especially with impending discussions around public confidence in, and uptake of, a vaccine for the virus.

Building, or rebuilding, trust can’t be achieved with a top-down approach; we must consider and act on the points above.

Many thanks to everyone who took part in this discussion – I hope I have done justice to the many excellent points you raised:

  • Carmel Britto (LPF Kiddies Club CIC)
  • Professor Lord Ara Darzi (President, British Science Association)
  • Dr Zubaida Haque (former Interim Director, Runnymede Trust and Member of Independent SAGE)
  • Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser (Chief Executive, UK Research and Innovation)
  • Claudia McFarlane (African Caribbean Achievement Project)
  • Ben Osborn (Managing Director & UK Country Manager, Pfizer)
  • Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan (President, Royal Society)
  • Chi Onwurah MP (Shadow Minister, Digital, Science & Tech, Labour Party) (for the very beginning of the meeting)