The challenge: balance defence of science with popular engagement

At the Royal Society's new Science Policy Centre, James Wilsdon can push his ideas, says Zoë Corbyn

May 28, 2009

Mention James Wilsdon to anyone studying the relationship between scientists and society and it is a fair bet that they will be familiar with his work.

Dr Wilsdon, former head of science and innovation at the independent think-tank Demos, introduced the concept of "upstream engagement" - the notion that to avoid controversies such as the row over GM food, scientists need to move beyond just trying to educate or engage in dialogue with the public about science and actually involve them in shaping the direction in which science develops.

"The task is to ... expose to public scrutiny the assumptions, values and visions that drive science," reads the blurb on the cover of See-through Science, a Demos pamphlet co-authored by Dr Wilsdon.

On Society's side

It is perhaps ironic, then, to find that after eight years at Demos, Dr Wilsdon is now the director of the new Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society. For not only is the Royal Society the UK's greatest defender of scientists' autonomy, it is the organisation that nearly 25 years ago hatched the public understanding of science movement, derided by critics for the idea that by ramming science down the throats of unsuspecting citizens, they would come to like it and fund it.

His move to the Royal Society, where he is joined by Jack Stilgoe, a colleague from Demos, came from a desire to address things from "within the system" rather than just "chucking ideas" in from outside.

"Think-tanks are fantastic, fun places from which to examine any issue," Dr Wilsdon said. "But you get to the point where your appetite starts to be supplanted by a desire to help see through some of your ideas."

Of course much has changed in the Royal Society's approach since the 1980s, as shown in the decision to appoint Dr Wilsdon - a 35-year-old with a degree in philosophy and theology from the University of Oxford and a PhD in technology policy from Middlesex University.

Its agenda is already closer to "upstream engagement" than public understanding, Dr Wilsdon said. He cited a review that his centre is undertaking of climate geoengineering techniques: proposals to intervene in the Earth's natural climate system. While the primary purpose is a vigorous scientific assessment of the techniques, which range from fertilising the oceans with iron filings to placing giant mirrors in space, it is also working with focus groups to gauge public opinion early with a view to at least sketching out the different debates.

"What I am trying to do (at the Royal Society) is knit reflection of the social dimensions of science into the way good science is done and into the way we do good science policy," he said.

But he is keen to stress that science and society is only one strand of his work. The centre, established as part of the society's forthcoming 350th anniversary celebrations, covers many issues, ranging from science's role in the economy to how it can help international diplomacy.

A study of the long-term prospects for UK science and innovation is also under way.

Amid the heated debate about whether UK research funds should be prioritised to support areas of economic impact, the Fruits of Curiosity review will address questions about the place of science and innovation, both in sorting out the current economic turmoil and in restructuring the economy.

Its timing - it will not be released until next year - is important. There is a general election on the horizon, and the Royal Society is concerned about what might happen to the science budget in the future.

"Inevitably over the next 12 to 18 months, a huge amount of attention will be focused on the spending round that follows the next election and its implications on the health of the research base," Dr Wilsdon said. "This is my number-one priority, and we see the review as our main contribution to that debate."

It starts with science

While Dr Wilsdon stressed that his role is not to "stir things up" or to instigate huge stand-alone programmes of "science and society" activity, it will be interesting to see how far he will take the Royal Society down a track of greater public engagement.

"What will always be the starting point for the Royal Society in any of these debates is what the science and the best scientists are telling us. But it isn't always sufficient to answer the full range of questions that policymakers are asking of organisations like ours, or indeed that the wider public are asking of science.

"We have got to bring a broader range of perspectives to the table, whether that includes social sciences, economics, philosophers or ethicists. And also - where it is possible and productive to do so - to try to engage with the public in different ways, (while) not pretending that those processes are not messy and complicated and partial."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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