Memorandum submitted by the British Association
for the Advancement of Science
1. The British Association (the BA) has
for many years been at the forefront of science communication
in the UK. Within the multiplicity of bodies now engaged in the
public communication of science the BA is unique. It is the only
nation-wide organisation, with a comprehensive multi-disciplinary
base and with an open membership that is wholly dedicated to improving
public awareness and appreciation of science. Its particular roles
organise exemplary programmes and
activities locally, regionally and nationally, and
provide a focal point for the community
of those who communicate science particularly in non-formal setting.
2. The BA welcomes the opportunity to reflect
on the impact of the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential.
Our comments refer, in particular, to the campaign to spread understanding
of science among school children and the public that was a key
plank of the White Paper.
3. Together with the Royal Society's 1985
Bodmer report on the public understanding of science, the 1993
White Paper has been a landmark document in science communication
in the UK. By recognising the importance of improving awareness
and appreciation of science and technology, ensuring that the
Research Councils had a responsibility to promote it, and allocating
resources to support appropriate initiatives, Realising Our
Potential made a significant and lasting impact that should
not be underestimated.
4.The BA has been one of the principal beneficiaries
of the resulting OST support for this area of work. Already recognised
within the 1993 White Paper for activities such as its annual
festival of science and Talking Science+, the range of the BA's
work has expanded significantly in the subsequent years. In particular
established the National Science
assumed responsibility for AlphaGalileo,
the media resource service for European science, engineering and
encouraged young people to become
involved in Foresight-related activities
been the catalyst for creating SPARKS,
the South Kensington millennium festival of arts and sciences
5. Realising Our Potential led directly
to the BA proposing the idea of the National Science Week, an
initiative that the OST has consistently supported since its inception.
Co-ordinated by the BA, the week now involves hundreds of organisations
across the UK staging events and activities which last year provided
some 8,000 visitor opportunities and attracted over 1.2 million
participants. Widespread media interest multiplies the audience
6. AlphaGalileo is an internet press service
designed to provide journalists with a "one stop shop"
for access to scientific news stories from across Europe. Initiated
by PPARC, it was passed to the British Association in 1998 and
now has partners in six other European countries.
7. The BA has been active in encouraging
young people to become involved in Foresight-related activities.
Its Vision for the Future programme has encouraged young people
to think how science and technology might be harnessed to create
the sort of society they want. An on-line version of the initiative
is soon to be launched. Visions events have focused on topics
such as transport, food, water and energy supplies.
8. The decision to hold the BA's annual
festival for 2000 in London inspired the development of creating
SPARKS, the South Kensington millennium festival of the arts and
sciences. Although not the millennium exhibition proposed in the
White Paper, this month-long festival has a much greater compass,
involving the Victoria & Albert, Natural History and Science
Museums; Imperial College and the Royal Colleges of Art and Music;
the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Albert Hall.
9. Most recently the BA has taken over CREST
awards, which were singled out for government support in the 1993
White Paper. The BA now has schemes to stimulate interest and
involvement in science and engineering among young people from
The Wider Impact of Realising Our Potential
10. The impact of the 1993 White Paper on
science communication has been widespread. One very positive outcome
is the enthusiastic support given to initiatives by successive
Ministers of science.
11. Recently the OST has initiated survey
work to help provide a better understanding of the background,
behaviour and attitudes of the public. This is a service to the
whole of the science communication community and is most welcome.
12. The greater involvement of Research
Councils in this area of work is also welcome. Most Councils have
established public understanding grant schemes and these have
had a positive effect in stimulating their research grant-holders
to engage in public communication activities. Similarly, a number
of Councils now ask their grant holders to report on such activities.
In our view it is important that the Councils work closely together
in this area both to avoid duplication and to avoid confusion
among the public and in schools where science tends to be perceived
in its entirety rather than in the particular chunks represented
by the areas of responsibility of the various Councils.
13. Since the White Paper, many have pinpointed
the fact that in the academic world, there is little or no formal
recognition for effort and achievement in public understanding
of science. Many researchers, who would otherwise be willing to
engage in activities with the public find themselves unable to
do so because of the pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise
and/or the criteria for career progression. This is an issue that
needs urgent attention from the appropriate bodies.
Public Understanding of Science: the need for
14. Feedback on the national science week
and very many other activities shows positive responses from event
organisers and participants alike. Public opinion surveys continue
to show positive attitudes to science in the UK. Nonetheless the
public discussion on issues like GM foods and crops has not been
well-informed, and the quality and quantity of young people being
attracted into science courses and careers remains disappointing.
The same surveys that show positive attitudes to science also
show a diminution of trust in science and scientists, especially
those from backgrounds that are not perceived to be independent,
eg government and industry. This suggests not that there should
be a diminution in the effort put into science communication but
that there should be some re-focusing and redirection.
15. The recent report on the inquiry into
Science and Society by the House of Lords Select Committee on
Science and Technology provides considerable insight in this area
and is greatly welcomed by the BA. The concepts of dialogue and
transparency are ones that the BA fully endorses. The BA is already
committed to making activities, such as its annual festival, more
focused on discussion and debate and is planning a new headquarters
building at the Science Museum with purpose-built facilities for
public discussion. A regular programme of discussions on topical
scientific issues has also been established under the banner of
the BA magazine, Science and Public Affairs.
16. The BA also supports the need for science
at school better to cater for those young peoplethe vast
majoritywho will not progress into scientific careers but
who will nonetheless be citizens in a society where advances in
science and technology will impinge on almost every aspect of
A Strategy for Science
17. Science communication and science education
are issues that must be addressed if any overall strategy for
science is to be effective in today's world. Scientists themselves
are key to success in these areas. It is easy to make the case
for two-way rather than one-way communication and for a school
science curriculum whose primary focus is scientific literacy
but they represent major cultural shifts. Scientists are used
to communicating by lecturing and writing papers. Engaging in
discussion and dialogue requires different skills. It involves
listening as well as speaking. Similarly a shift in the focus
of the school science curriculum will only be possible if higher
education institutions are prepared to accept students whose background
is different from those who follow the current paths into universities.
18. Like science itself, the challenges,
opportunities and techniques of science communication are international
in scope. In many parts of the world the UK is perceived to be
a world-leader in this area. The international nature of this
endeavour and the UK's leading role in it should be recognised
and built upon in any future strategy for science.
19. This memorandum has focused on only
one aspect of the 1993 White Paper, namely that concerned with
awareness and appreciation of science among young people and the
public at large. In today's world these aspects, though small
in some senses, are nonetheless crucial if science and science-based
industry is to continue to have a "licence to operate"
in the UK. Realising Our Potential was a landmark document
in these areas. It has led to many welcome developments. But the
speed of advance and change in science and the difficulty we all
have to keep up has led to increasing public caution and scepticism.
The effort which has been set in motion must continue but some
change of focus and direction is called for. The recent House
of Lords report on Science and Society provides valuable indicators
of possible ways forward.
12 June 2000