People are hungry for healthy data

February 25, 2000

Mark Dyball of the Office of Science and Technology told the AAAS meeting about how the United Kingdom was raising the public's understanding of science

The renaissance of science communication in the United Kingdom was marked by the Royal Society's 1985 report The Public Understanding of Science.

In 1993, the government sponsored a programme to encourage debate about and entry into the sciences. The premise was a top-down one of the public needing to understand scientific facts.

But as science communication developed from its volunteer roots, it became clear that there was a need to learn techniques from the social sciences and the commercial sector.

The election of a Labour government in 1997 was a watershed, with science ministers stating that science needed to understand the public as much as the public need to be literate about science.

The public consultation on developments in the biosciences run by the Office of Science and Technology in 1998 and 1999 was the first government-led initiative to try to engage the public in a science-based policy issue. Lord Sainsbury as minister for science set five overarching questions for the consultation. They were:

What is the level and nature of people's awareness of technological advances in the biosciences?

What issues do people see arising from developments in the biosciences, and how important are these compared with other major scientific issues?

What is the extent of people's knowledge of the oversight and regulatory process in the UK and Europe?

What issues do people believe should be taken into account in any oversight of developments in the biosciences?

What information should be made available to the public from the regulatory system and about advances in the biosciences?

Opinion pollsters Mori conducted qualitative and quantitative research. Six two-day workshops involving 120 randomly selected members of the public were held at venues around the UK. The quantitative work involved more than 1,100 members of the People's Panel in face-to-face interviews.

Key conclusions were:

People generally have a low awareness of science and technology around them, but have a reasonable understanding of what is meant by biology and genetics

Health-care related activities were seen as being of paramount benefit, while cloning and genetic modification (when the link to health care is not made for people) are seen as lacking

There was a mistrust of commercially interested organisations such as industry and retailers. This mistrust extended to both information they provide and a potential role in decision-making

A robust regulatory system that is transparent, regularly reviewed and incorporates random checks was seen as contributing to winning public confidence in the oversight of the biological sciences

Government advisory groups were seen as a trusted mechanism for decision-making, but membership should be broadly based

There is a widespread demand for information and, again, government advisory groups would be trusted to provide this information. Direct mailing of information was highlighted as a mechanism that might be more effectively used for official communication.

The consultation was held in parallel with the Cabinet Office review of the regulatory framework for biotechnology.

The formation of the Human Genetics Commission and the Agricultural and Environmental Biotechnology Commission, whose terms of reference include the requirement for public consultation and involvement, will see the pilot work carried out in the bioscience consultation taken forward alongside continuing policy development. Details on the project can be found on the OST website at: www.dti.gov.uk/ost/ostbusiness under the public understanding section.

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