Scientists to be paid to explain

March 17, 2000

Scientists are being discouraged from explaining their work to the public by the fierce competition resulting from the funding councils' research assessment system.

The House of Lords report on science and society, launched on Tuesday, called for efforts to engage in public dialogue to be rewarded by the research assessment exercise.

This is vital if public confidence in the benefits of science, shaken by the BSE fiasco and unease about biotechnology, is to be improved.

The report, the result of a year-long inquiry by the Lords' science and technology committee, makes recommendations to tackle the problem, which impinges on individual scientists as well as universities, schools, museums and the openness of official scientific information.

While the Lords praised the research councils for encouraging their scientists to engage with the public, they were more critical of the funding councils.

Inquiry chairman Lord Jenkin of Roding said: "Universities have become more adept at presenting the results of their research to attract the highest RAE scores. We have heard so much criticism of the effects this has had."

Lord Winston, chairman of the select committee, added: "The universities could do more towards public outreach."

The report stated: "No doubt in the face of financial exigencies, some universities have felt obliged to neglect activities such as public outreach that are not specifically required by their financial sponsors, but that nevertheless ought to be central to the mission of a university carrying out research."

It recommended that the funding councils reward those who brought the results of their research to a wider audience, possibly with a new funding stream.

John Rogers, the RAE manager, rejected the criticism, insisting that many changes had been introduced into the 2001 exercise to recognise a better balance between research, teaching and other activities.

"Public dissemination of research findings is something the funding bodies are keen to encourage," he said.

Other recommendations were:

* Making dialogue with the public an integral part of the activities of research organisations and learned institutions

* That universities should persuade research students to undergo communication training, and include the social context of their work and its applications

* Grant-giving bodies and universities should give researchers the opportunity to share their work with the public, as well as the

support and reward for doing so.

Peter Briggs, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said:

"The onus should fall on universities and their public relations departments to facilitate communication between researchers and the media."

The full report can be viewed at:

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