Ottoline Leyser: boost efforts to make science accessible for all

Head of UK Research & Innovation will urge scientists to help shed public view that research is an ‘elite and alien world inhabited by boffins’

September 22, 2020
Ottoline Leyser
Dame Ottoline Leyser

Scientists must do more to debunk the “myth” that science and innovation “is run by and for the elite”, the new head of the UK’s main research funding body is due to say today.

In an address to a virtual conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the House of Lords’ Science and Society report, Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), will outline her desire to tackle “current perceptions of science” as a “domain of Einsteins” in which researchers are seen as “clever people solving problems for you, often alone”.

“The ‘clever scientist’ narrative feeds the myth that the knowledge economy is run by and for the elite,” Dame Ottoline will explain at the event, due to be hosted by UKRI and the Research on Research Institute, on 22 September.

“With our current perceptions of science as the domain of Einsteins, a knowledge economy sounds like one that is going to take jobs away from those left-out and left-behind communities and give them to the elite few,” she will add.

Instead, the scientific community must share its commitment to establishing an “inclusive knowledge economy” in which “everyone has the opportunity to participate, and from which everyone benefits”.

Dame Ottoline, who took over the UK’s £7 billion a year research funding body in July, will say that scientists have made “good progress” in their public engagement efforts since the publication of the “Science and Society” report in 2000, which marked the start of  a “more open and transparent dialogue between scientists and the public”.

However, Dame Ottoline will add that there “remains a significant gap between those who feel able to make informed choices, to question, challenge and influence research and innovation, and those who feel disconnected, underrepresented and disenfranchised”.

“For this group, science is something that is done to you, not something in which you have a voice,” she is due to say, adding that, in the next 20 years, the “next step” would involve talking about “science in society” rather than “science and society”.

“Science needs to be a normal part of cultural life,” Dame Ottoline will add, saying it was unfortunate that science and research was sometimes seen as “an elite and alien world inhabited by boffins”.

Research and innovation are currently, “if they were a sport…polo”, Dame Ottoline is due to say. “We need to reclaim them as normal. Research and innovation have to be football – a national sport in which anyone can participate.”

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Reader's comments (4)

A good step forward as long as it does not assume anyone and everyone can be a scientist . They cannot. To practice science well needs intellect and training as well as acute observation and analytical skills. What needs to be addressed is the disproportionate funding for science given to Russell Groups and Oxbridge and the overlooking of talented scientists in Universities where it is much harder to be recognised and yet research thrives.
I agree with much of this. In broader discourse, I would caution against conflating perceptions with actualities. In other words, we need to inspect the systems in the first instance, rather than considering perceptions or understanding thereof as the starting point. I'm sure that's what Dame Ottoline intends, but I see this frequently.
Looking at the disproportionate distribution of funding and resources in the Oxford, Cambridge, London triangle, I would be inclined to say, if not the elite, it is clearly a game for the insiders. Access to significant R&D support goes to an elite few companies and organisations, for SMEs and new researchers funding is trivially small and a lottery.
There's another strand that needs cutting off that many have missed, Science and Scientists are used and abused by the media and elites to browbeat the public, the terms 'settled science' and 'scientific consensus' along with 'scientists say' in the press are often rightly perceived as bullshit or preceding bullshit by many non-scientists. The damage to Science done by the pseudo (social) sciences doesn't help either.


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