by Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association

Scientific research can be an insular profession. Dedicated scientists and academics across the globe give up years of their life to become experts in their field with the hope of contributing in some way to improving the world or our understanding of it. Research and innovation will always be led by a few dedicated people, which the rest of us benefit from, and although not all of us can become professional scientists, we can all be a part of science.

I have recently been reflecting on this nuanced position, where research is led by a few, on behalf of the many – as well as on the role of the currently incubating, soon-to-be-born, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). What does the future hold for public engagement once scientific research is led by one, all-powerful organisation?

Last week, I attended a debate organised by the Foundation for Science & Technology on the topic of UKRI. They face a difficult challenge in tackling the many competing priorities that will arise from bringing together the existing research councils and related bodies. Like many other organisations, we at the British Science Association are watching intently to see how those priorities shake out.

Of course, we think that science and research can only be done well when public engagement is put at its heart, and early signs suggest that UKRI is adopting a similar position.

Speaking at the event, Sir Mark Walport, UKRI’s CEO-designate emphasised that effective and coherent public engagement will be critical to UKRI’s success, reaffirming the position of Sir Paul Nurse in the Nurse Review, that the new body should be “providing leadership on the conduct of….engagement with the public over science…Without this engagement and societal endorsement, the research endeavour will ultimately stall, or even fail”.

Sir Mark went on to state that he believes the recent fall in public trust in “the establishment” makes the task of building public trust even more challenging for the research sector. Quoting Baroness Onora O’Neill, he said: “we cannot ask to be trusted, we can only seek to be trustworthy,” and that by doing too much “talking to ourselves”, we would never be able to achieve that.

But, I’m not sure this issue simply boils down to trust. If we want people to engage with science, they need to see it as something relevant to them. Recent data shows that scientists are already pretty well-trusted. The Public Attitudes to Science survey in 2014 reported a 90% level of trust by the public in scientists working in universities, and this sentiment has been backed up by other public attitudes’ research. Compared to other professions, including politicians, the media and estate agents, scientists are always near the top of the list when it comes to trust.

The risk, I think, is that even with a high level of trust, scientists can still be seen as “the other” and those outside of science don’t see it as something for them. This risks leading to an erosion of trust when the public feel that scientists can’t relate to their wishes and worries. We see this in episodes of public controversy about science-based issues.

Part of the solution is for researchers to engage with a much wider range of people, either by themselves or by working through intermediaries, but we also need the public to feel that science is a part of their own everyday culture. As Sir Mark said, science needs to be a part of culture to show that, perhaps being a professional scientist may not be for everyone, but science certainly can and should be.