It's good to talk

Not only must scientists debate their work more with the public, their efforts should be rewarded, says Jack Stilgoe.

January 31, 2008

Last night saw the launch of six "Beacons for Public Engagement", bringing together universities across the UK in a new effort to make their ivory towers a little more transparent. Researchers will be encouraged to get out, talk and listen to their local communities and other public groups. And they will be asked to think through the broader social context of their work.

Over the past decade, calls for greater public engagement with research, especially in controversial and disruptive areas of science, have grown in volume and grudgingly become accepted by policymakers and research funders. In the wake of debates over genetically modified foods, stem cells and nanotechnology, scientists now realise that public debate is a non-negotiable part of their licence to operate. In the next five years, developments in synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and human enhancement will ask new social and ethical questions.

But those scientists who do engage with social questions do so despite rather than because of the system. The fact remains that such ventures are not rewarded or respected. Research councils are starting to give money to scientists who want to start new conversations about their work. But their research will ultimately be judged, via the research assessment exercise, in terms of papers and patents, without much consideration of what we have called "public value" - broader benefit to society. A 2006 survey carried out by the Royal Society found that more than half of all scientists would like to spend more time engaging with the public.

Since its birth, the RAE has been under attack from various directions. Its view of what counts as good science has been exceptionally narrow. It has reinforced a model of highly specialised, publish-or-perish researchers, preventing scientists from engaging in activities that might have broader value, such as public engagement, scientific advice to government, or genuine interdisciplinarity.

Despite calls to open up the criteria for the 2008 version of the RAE, the research excellence framework, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Treasury further narrowed their gaze. Assuming that everything that counts can be counted, they proposed that the time-consuming paperwork of previous rounds should be replaced by a lighter touch system of bibliometrics.

Recently, however, in a speech on science and society, John Denham, Secretary of State for Universities, appeared to provide cause for optimism. He said that "if scientists don't have the capacity, or the incentive, to understand society's needs, we will all be less able to use science to help society". The REF, he admitted, would in its proposed form stand in the way of scientists' participation in vital public and policy debates, so it needed to change. Hefce should take a broader view of what counts as scientific excellence and reward scientists who see public engagement as part of their work.

There are many reasons for scientists to engage more actively with the public: building trust, generating awareness and getting more teenagers on to science degrees all feature. But the more fundamental discussion that needs to take place is around the public value of science in a complex, sceptical society.

At the think-tank Demos, we staged our own set of conversations about the public value of science with scientists who are keen to talk and with other interested groups. In November, we held a discussion about the potential for nanotechnology to benefit the developing world. The more our nanoscientists and non-governmental organisations exchanged views, the more they saw the gulf between human needs and UK research priorities. It was not a simple matter of finding interesting technologies and transferring them to Africa. There was an identified need for systemic changes to the way science was supported and rewarded.

If science is to have real benefits for the developing world, as many scientists think it can, we need a broader sense of what counts as good science. It might be late in the day, and it might frustrate the Treasury, but the RAE 2008 is the place to start.

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