Scientists need to get out more

September 2, 2005

The public has an appetite for science so those in the field should share their vision, says Roland Jackson

How can we embed the work of scientists and engineers in society? On the face of it, public attitudes to science appear paradoxical. Widespread concerns are voiced about technologies such as genetic modification, and more generally about the pace of development and the role of commercialisation, yet the public is simultaneously highly appreciative of what science has done and of what it can do for society. In the recent MORI national survey Science in Society , 86 per cent of respondents said that science makes a good contribution to society, an approval rating that would have any political party purring with satisfaction. Yet many scientists see the expression of concerns by pressure groups and in the media as implying a growing anti-science culture.

But there is no paradox and there is no substantial anti-science culture in the UK: the attitudinal evidence clearly shows otherwise. Public concerns relate to specific applications of science, to the purposes to which science is put, and to the values driving choices of research, development and commercialisation.

There is an enormous public appetite for greater involvement with science.

On the evidence of the MORI survey, half of all adults say they hear too little information on science and 79 per cent say that scientists should spend more time discussing the implications of their work with the public.

Three quarters think scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

That requires scientists to share their vision in a spirit of dialogue.

That is the motivation behind Perspectives , the poster session at the British Association Festival of Science in Dublin. The programme is supported by the UK's research councils and encourages researchers to present, and to discuss with the visiting public, the wider implications and context of their work.

Scientists at all levels comment on the positive outcomes, both personal and professional, that come from public discussion. But they also worry that existing reward systems, such as the research assessment exercise, can make it difficult for them to engage.

This year's Science Communication Conference, organised jointly by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society, identified concerns at the barriers, institutional and cultural, that may prevent many scientists from effective public engagement. It identified the need for funders to send clear signals about the value of such activity and to reward it.

In this context, I welcome the reference, in The Higher Education Funding Council for England's outline strategic plan 2006-11, to "working with our partners to encourage a closer engagement between higher education and the public". The outline plan envisages this, including dissemination of research outcomes to potential users and the public at large.

Science, and its potential for our society, is too important for those practising it not to be fully integrated into society's discussions about priorities and values. We need a culture change in which it is part of a scientist's normal professional activity to explain and discuss his or her work in public forums, and in which this engagement is given due recognition and reward by scientists themselves, their employing institutions and their funders.

Roland Jackson is chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The BA Festival of Science is in Dublin, September 3-10.

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