Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220
MONDAY 16 MARCH 2009
Q220 Chairman: Would you give us
a concrete example?
Ms Brown: For examplealthough
actually I am picking on something which is perhaps not the worst
examplethe recent consultation that started two years ago
on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act update made reference
to things being controversial, for instance, and did not explain
why they are controversial or actually on what basis the Government
assumed them to be controversial. In fact, we looked at the evidence
being used there to ascertain public opinion and discovered it
was a circular set of references where the Chief Medical Officer
had called it controversial so the Department of Health did so,
and in fact there was not a study that showed that the hybrid
and chimera embryos being discussed there were particularly controversial.
It would be very helpful for people to lay things out in a way
that actually refers to how they would have experienced the discussion
in society around them.
Q221 Chairman: Sir Roland, you mentioned
that your Association wanted to have a science and society framework
in which we could actually have positive engagementin other
words that you would set the rules and terms for a science and
society engagement to take place. What has happened to that proposal,
where is it?
Sir Roland Jackson: I would not
dream to attempt to set the rules.
Q222 Chairman: The framework then
in which you could actually have a sensible debate.
Sir Roland Jackson: There has
recently been a consultation by DIUS on their science and society
strategy, introduced by the previous Science Minister, Ian Pearson,
and we are awaiting at the moment the formal response to that.
My Association's suggestion was a parallel to what the Government
had done to bring coherence to the whole area of science education
through the so-called STEM programme; we were simply saying we
think there is a need and an opportunity to take that slightly
wider picture, look across the whole science and society interface
which, as others have commented, is very diverse. There is a multiplicity
of purposes and reasons for people to do this and, essentially,
to help clarify the landscape a bit to say what are we doing and
why in which areas, and do we have the sort of infrastructure
and capabilities and culture in those areas that are necessary
to take things forward.
Q223 Chairman: Do you think that
Sir Roland Jackson: I certainly
think it is because actually a lot of the elements of it are in
place already, and it does not need a heavy touch by government
either because there are many independent agencies involved in
this business for their own perfectly legitimate reasons, but
enabling those to work together for better mutual effect is where
government should be putting its efforts. It should be supporting
those things where people are starting to come together and the
most recent big example is the Big Bang Fair that I know you were
involved withwhich was initiated by us with Young Engineers
and then by the ETBwhich has brought together 50 or more
associations in a common purpose for a much bigger national impact
over time. There are a number of areas where we can continue to
do that by either exploiting existing networks like National Science
Engineering Week or the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre and
others or, if there are gaps, identify where those are and seek
to fill them.
Q224 Graham Stringer: In terms of
public understanding and participation in scientific consultation
the media often gets an unjustified bashing; what do you think
the learned societies or the scientific community as a whole could
do to help the media get their stories more accurate or better?
It is easy to blame the newspapers but could the scientific community
do more? Tracey.
Ms Brown: An awful lot is already
being done there. If you look back five or six years ago many
universities and professional learned societies did not really
have a media-facing function for their science communication;
now they do, and you have the Science Media Centre and a lot of
organisations that have learned to work with the media. Actually,
for all that people say that the media are a problem, we are blessed
with a lot of people in the UK who take their time to pursue stories
pretty well and make the relationships fairly effective. I also
think the media raise quite a lot of important questions about
the basis on which decisions are madewe can refer back
to our earlier discussionsand that is often overlooked.
Sir Roland Jackson: I would agree
with that. On the whole we are remarkably well served by our media,
particularly supportive agencies like the Science Media Centre,
and we take great care to cultivate relationships with journalists
at times like the Festival to get a huge and almost invariably
very positive coverage of science and engineering and what is
going on. There are some systemic things which can be built on
which are that it really is very important for the scientific
and engineering community to understand how the media works and
to work with the grain of the media because the media are not
going to change in principle. Schemes like our media fellowship
scheme or other training schemes that other organisations run
that enable scientists to work directly with journalists and understand
how the two can work better together are really important.
Q225 Graham Stringer: This is slightly
Utopian, is it not? There is obviously a lot of good reporting
but there is the MMR media reporting, stem cell research, GM foods,
all of which have been appallingly reported. That is slightly
the best of all possible worlds, that sort of outlook, and it
ignores the real problem, if you do not mind me saying so.
Sir Roland Jackson: It depends
how you define appalling there. From the MMR point of view one
could say the scientific community should have come out earlier,
rather than the journalists necessarily, and highlighted where
the balance of evidence actually lay. In terms of GM it is a very,
very complex debate because like most of these things it is not
just about science, it is about other clashes of values and perceptions
and, in cases like that, again, the scientific community should
come out all guns blazing and explain, while recognising where
other people are coming from, what its perceptions and views are.
Journalists on the whole respond to that.
Professor Haines: We should not
be complacent about this but it is a fact that the majority of
the population do actually believe that scientists and science
are good for them and are moving the world forward. I say we must
not be complacent, but I would say that there will be that section
of media outlets that are always looking for the bad story, the
story that sells the newspaper or the story that gets people to
turn on the television at 8.30 and watch their channel rather
than somebody else's. We have to keep on fighting and struggling
against that but, broadly speaking, science has been on the up
for a considerable amount of time in the opinion of the population
as a whole.
Q226 Graham Stringer: What are the
best examples of public engagement exercises about science that
have led to a real improvement of the public's understanding of
a particular scientific issue and why were those examples successful?
Ms Brown: They are not necessarily
at a national level. One of the things that our Trust does is
respond to questions from anybody who has got any kind of audience
or constituency which could be a local midwife trying to deal
with a story about plasticizers in babies' bottles or a local
authority addressing concerns about wi-fi in schools. Actually
where things become successful I think are where people have relationships
that they can pursue their questions through, which is to say
"Is this even a scientific question?" That is the question
we get asked the most, "Is this even a scientific question?"
and then if it is "Where do I go?" because there may
be X number of engineering institutes but who knows which are
for what and whether they will answer my questions. When people
form those relationships and get confident to pursue those kinds
of questions, those tend to be more the successful things. I do
not think that there is some kind of policy for harmony on a national
level that we can establish that would prevent any kind of blow-up
of a vaccine scare or that kind of thing. At that point we just
have to look at who the players in that discussion are and whether
people are putting forward the arguments and the evidence and
work it out as they come up.
Q227 Graham Stringer: It is very
interesting in terms of process and individual examples. Sir Roland
and Professor Haines, are there examples you can give us of something
on a national level that has led to a better understanding of
Sir Roland Jackson: I am not sure
that we have ever really deliberately orchestrated those sorts
of activities. This is again something that we put in our evidence,
that we suggested that selected government consultations on major
areas of policy in relation to science could be used by government
if it so wished with an educational agenda alongside as well.
To give you an example, I recall all the consultations around
the Energy White Paper a few years ago which, like most public
consultations, were primarily stakeholder consultationsthe
usual suspects and institutions responded. The material that was
produced for that was really very detailed and actually written
in a very accessible way, and could quite easily have been turned
into something that could have been used by a whole range of organisations
like science centres or us or others to broker a set of individual
debates and discussions around the country, to inform people about
what the issues were and, crucially, to pick out what was coming
back in public debate and feed that back in. I do not think we
are doing enough of that and that would both help the policy process,
give a lot more validity to the policy process and educate the
public at the same time.
Professor Haines: You asked the
question in a rather specific way about the understanding of science.
I know that there are different words used at different times
but I am not sure I would want to use the word understanding of
science in relation to people recognising what science had done
for them; I would prefer to look at it as appreciation of science
and in that people are fully aware that it is scientists that
are going to solve the problem of HIV AIDs, climate changewe
will leave out the issue of whether it is global warming or notand
a whole range of other issues. I do think that people do appreciate
that science and scientists are going to solve all the kinds of
problems that they have an interest in.
Q228 Dr Harris: Do you think they
make a distinction between proper science and TV nutritionists?
Professor Haines: No, and I do
not think that a certain heir to the throne helps very much in
that regard either.
Q229 Chairman: I am going to meet
another member of the Royal Family in half an hour; we will leave
that subject there.
Ms Brown: Can I just make a point
about peer review though because when we set out some years ago
now to popularise an understanding of peer review scientists laughed
about it because they experience it as that really awful, dull
thing that frustrates them. Actually we published a short guide
called I Don't Know What to Believe and we found that 200,000
people wanted it, which we had never anticipated, and we now find
that the question "Is it peer reviewed?"which
is not to say it is right or it is wrong, it is good or it is
bad, it just says have we at least got to the stage here where
something is being published so that it can be scrutinised by
others and we can have a conversation then about what others saidis
starting to crop up. We monitor the use of that and that leaflet
is now used by NHS Direct, it is part of the 21st century science
teaching in schools and just the recognition question that the
calibre of the science you are looking at is as important as the
findings and the possible conclusions. That is something where
there has been a lot of success and it is not only ours, we have
encouraged lots of others to do likewise, and people are beginning,
even at a very basic level, to ask the question "What I am
reading here on page 3 of the Daily Moon is that actually
good science or bad science?" That is actually quite a new
question for people to ask and a very helpful one.
Q230 Dr Harris: Does it help them
to understand the importance of publishing the evidence to help
judge if it is reliable?
Ms Brown: In a mixed fashion.
There are some people who are very aware of the need to do that
and there are obviously still cases where that does not happen,
which refers back to the point I was making earlier that it is
political pressure actually that forces people to explain the
basis on which they reach a decision.
Q231 Graham Stringer: My final question,
Tracey, you outlined the initiatives that affect democratic engagement
by the public rather than audience participation. Can you expand
on what the key differences are in those two approaches?
Ms Brown: Similar to the difference
of the enjoyment of science in popular sciencereading popular
science books, going to see shows and that kind of thingand
actually pursuing something where there is an element of accountability,
where you are even asking the question why is the Government telling
me this is right, or this is evidence-based and how has it come
to that conclusion. That is the beginning of the path of democratic
accountability, it is a different process. I would also add that
I am slightly wary of the idea that seems to be around in relation
to DIUS about it having a strategy. I know Roland has referred
to the need to engender trust and, clearly, we do not want people
doing things that encourage mistrust, but it is actually healthy
for people not to have a blanket trust. That we should celebrate
things like sharing science, your love of science, or improving
science education or dealing with difficult issuesthose
things are maybe justified in their own terms rather than because
they help improve trust in government or in DIUS. It slightly
worries me that there could be a manipulative element to those
kinds of activities, that the reason why DIUS might fund a science
fair might be because they are hoping to promote some sort of
trust me, do not look too close at everything else, we have done
the science fair.
Q232 Dr Iddon: I want to turn now
to consultation and how the government goes about it. How do you
think the Government could improve its consultation? Ian, can
we start with you?
Professor Haines: I mentioned
the consultation about the future of higher education earlier.
That does tend to appear to be something where in choosing a certain
group of people to in the main produce their own personal report,
having admittedly in most casesas far as I can tell from
the reports, all of which I have readgone and consulted
with a certain number of people; I think that is not in any way
the way to progress; it is much more important to have some open
meetings with some open questions. I went to the meeting a couple
of weeks ago on the government agenda for science which John Denham
spoke at and it was actually very interesting because by the time
John Denham had given his speech there was a serious opportunity
for people to question the minister. With about 250 people in
the room virtually nobody put their hand up. I would suggest that
that was an indication of people sitting there tending to feel
that the decisions had already been made, so what I am arguing
for is much more open discussion; open questions rather than closed
Q233 Dr Iddon: Not just the usual
suspects; okay. Roland?
Sir Roland Jackson: This came
up in evidence that others gave to you a couple of weeks ago.
It depends very much on what the purpose of the consultation is
because there are, quite legitimately, different framings and
emphases for a particular consultation. Is it a consultation about
the policy per se, is it about how we implement the policy or
whatever, so clarity about that is really important. The dimension
I would add, which we put in our evidence, which again is trying
to give a broader public voice to government consultation, is
to say that alongside the traditional stakeholder type of route
which we have all talked about it would not be that difficult
to instigate some sort of more continuous, what you might call
social intelligence gathering around what are likely to be key
areas of science policy. I am thinking, for example, of what we
did in nanotechnology a few years ago where we worked with partnership
organisations to run a whole series of events on discussions around
nanotechnology, to collate the views from those discussions, feed
them back into subsequent discussions and then pull out what people
were saying. A lot of that will give you similar views to the
views that come out of more in-depth social science work or sometimes
out of questionnaire work, but if you had a system that in a sense
enabled you to tap in on a continuous basis to areas of public
interest and concern about science I think you would then be able
to provide policymakers on a timely basis with much more nuanced
and up to date evidence. I think that would be helpful.
Q234 Dr Iddon: Tracey.
Ms Brown: One of the biggest problems
is not knowing what is at stake. It is like the classic thing,
if you went round an estate of people and asked whether they were
fed up with dog mess they would all say they absolutely hate it,
but if you say shall we get rid of all the dogs in the area as
a result of that decision they would not say the same thing. That
is half the time the problem, people do not know whether they
are expressing a preference or whether they are being asked to
actually make a decision, in which case they need to take into
account a much broader range of potential consequences. One of
the things that has happened for Sense about Science is that when
we have raised concerns about new developments of policy, not
just with departments but also with statutory bodies under them
as well, they have complained that there was a consultation period,
why did we not hear about it then. But sometimes what is at stake
only becomes clear at some later stage of implementation, and
then the scientists get told off for the fact that they did not
realise quickly enough that this was going to wipe out their use
of a particular procedure, for example. We had this with the Tissue
Bill, we had it with the Physical Agents Directive and so forth.
That is actually quite a problem in terms of explaining what it
is at stakeit is not just the social reaction to that,
it is also trying to work these things through. At the moment
I have had a conversation with the Statutory Instruments Committee
and they are wondering with all the things that are coming through
from Europe actually what is likely to create some sort of a reaction,
how are scientists getting to hear about new European directives
that may then have an impact on the kind of work that they can
do. We only hear about it at the point at which it is being implemented
into UK law, by which point it is really a bit too late to be
trying to do something about it, it is a big uphill struggle.
There is a problem there with not knowing what the implications
of things are until a later stage.
Q235 Dr Iddon: Are you all aware
there is a Cabinet Office document on how consultation should
Sir Roland Jackson: Yes.
Professor Haines: Yes.
Ms Brown: Yes, and it has actually
begun to have a slight improvement on the thing about not just
going to the usual suspects. I have really noticed that departments
are going much more broadly with who they are consulting.
Q236 Dr Iddon: How do we measure
the success or otherwise of a consultation once the government
has done it, is it possible? Tracey.
Ms Brown: That is defined by the
terms of what it was for in the first place. I think if it has
not uncovered a significant reaction or problem then of course
you could say it is unsuccessful but if the consultation is to
appease public opinion about something that is a bit of a more
tricky issue. If it was to be seen to be doing the right thing
or to give people the feeling that they had had their saysome
kind of almost psychological benefit for the participantsthen
that is actually a much more difficult thing to look at and I
am not even sure that that is what consultation should be for.
Sir Roland Jackson: I would point
here to the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre and some of the
work that it is doing, which I hope will tease out some of these
things, because what it is trying to do is support a culture right
the way across government, particularly in relation to science
and technology issues, of what sorts of consultations might be
carried out for what purposes and how, and how you evaluate that.
I would look out for their work as it carries on and is published.
Professor Haines: I do not know
that I can add very much but I am just thinking that when one
goes to a conference one fills in a form at the end that says
what you thought of the conference. I just wonder once whether
there might be an opportunity to say what one thought of the consultation.
Q237 Dr Iddon: The Government carried
out a consultation on science and society and it reached two amazing
conclusions: first, that there is a need to increase high quality
public engagement and, second, that we need to increase the UK's
stem base. As the first conclusion was essentially the reason
for conducting the consultation in the first place and the second
conclusion is already government policy, what was the point of
that exercise? Did you take an interest in that; I am sure you
Ms Brown: It is such an enormous
range of subjects that were covered that it did just re-pose the
questions in the end and I think they found themselves with something
perhaps rather overwhelming because it was not very focused. One
of my frustrations is that there is very little being invited
in the way of true evaluation of what had gone before, which I
suspect might be because there is a lot of incentive to talk about
the fact that money was well-spent, and therefore nobody wants
to ask the really difficult questions about where it might not
have been so well-spent. Surely, actually, that is where you are
going to develop quite a useful set of insights into what should
be developed in the future. It is only a summary that has been
produced and they are now looking to evaluate that summary, but
the hands-off almost no comment feel to it is quite strong.
Q238 Dr Iddon: Are there any other
comments about that particular consultation?
Sir Roland Jackson: I would say
that what the consultation, as far as I have seen it so far, has
shownperhaps not surprisinglyis how diverse and
complex what we call public engagement is. Some people see that
as a problem, and it certainly is if you try and see it as one
activity, as a lump, but what you need to do and what I hope will
come out in the consultation at the next stage is to focus down
and say yes, we agree it is a very broad area, it covers all the
way through from the things we were talking about here such as
scrutiny of the way decisions are taken that have some public
relevance, right the way through to exciting young people to take
a career in science. What we need to do is to say okay, these
are the legitimate purposes, the main purposes for which this
public engagement is being carried out, do we have the right infrastructure
and systems in place for each of these particular reasons, each
of which is valid but they are distinct and different and trying
to capture it all under one heading is a bit too difficult.
Q239 Dr Iddon: Too ambitious, okay.
Professor Haines: I do not think
I have got anything to add.
Dr Iddon: Thank you very much.
Chairman: On that degree of unanimity
we will bring this session to a close. Thank you very much indeed
Tracey Brown, Sir Roland Jackson and Professor Ian Haines.