Vote for engagement

Greater outreach by scientists could ramp up demand for politicians with better scientific training, says David Berman

June 8, 2017
empty parliamentary seating

In February, the UK government announced a new rule preventing any organisation in receipt of public money from lobbying Parliament for policy change. Cue two months of uproar from grant-funded academic scientists worried that this would prevent them from making evidence-based policy recommendations, before the government “clarified” that the rule, aimed at charities delivering public services, would not apply to academics.

Regardless of whether the concerns were the result of government cock-up or conspiracy, the whole affair was a timely reminder of just how wide the gap remains between science and policymaking. And a glance at the professional backgrounds of the general election candidates in your constituency is highly likely to hammer home that message even further.

This marginalisation of science persists despite the fact that, in recent years, many of the principal UK research funders have come to see public engagement as a core part of a scientist’s business. A key contribution to this change has come from the research councils, whose obligatory “pathways to impact” form has been interpreted as a place for grant applicants to declare how they will disseminate their results to the public – or, at the very least, to interested parties beyond the academic realm. And many of the impact case studies submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework were based on public engagement, resulting in many UK universities subsequently taking a strategic decision to do more to support engagement activities.

There are now more professional science communication consultants than ever before. New large-scale “enabling” institutions, such as the UK's National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, have also been created. Public engagement is now a career in its own right; while those inspired by Carl Sagan in the 1970s might have aspired to a career in science, many of those whose imaginations are captured by Brian Cox would rather have a career in science communication.

This is all very well, but what is the ultimate purpose of all this outreach? The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently produced its Science Communication and Engagement Report. One of the report’s key recommendations was that scientists should strive to engage more directly with those in power. That is certainly a very sensible suggestion. Parliament is in particular need of experts in an era of rapid technological change and growing environmental and societal challenges. And the sad fact is that MPs themselves are largely unable to provide that expertise. Before the general election, just 26 MPs out of the House of Commons’ 650 had any form of science qualification, about six (depending on exactly how you define it) had industrial science experience and, since Julian Huppert lost his Cambridge seat in 2015, none had any background in professional academic science (although Huppert is standing for re-election this time around).

This situation just exacerbates the sense that scientists are not so much contributors to mainstream society as mere advisers to it, offering their observations, from the wings, on the technical aspects of others’ visions. But this brings us back to science communication. If we could only inculcate in the general public a sense that knowing and understanding how nature works is an inherently good and important thing, it might begin to make an impact on the kind of politician they want to vote for.

There is hope. A survey commissioned by the Science and Technology Committee found that people have a strong desire to know how science affects their daily lives. The problem comes with the means of communication: 71 per cent of respondents believed that the media sensationalise science, and just 28 per cent believed that journalists check their facts when reporting scientific matters.

Correcting this scepticism – perhaps by engaging more directly with the public – is a long-term goal. But scientists are very used to the idea that some things take much longer to achieve than one political cycle, REF cycle or even generational cycle. The ultimate aspiration must be that, through a sustained and embedded public engagement culture in the sciences, the public themselves can push scientists beyond the waiting rooms of Whitehall mandarins and into the House of Commons itself.

Engagement can and should be more than advertising the specifics of some breakthrough or other. It should be part of creating a national and international culture that expects scientific literacy of its leaders.

David Berman is professor of theoretical physics at Queen Mary University of London.

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