Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  Q220  Chairman: Would you give us a concrete example?

  Ms Brown: For example—although actually I am picking on something which is perhaps not the worst example—the 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 engagement—in 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 is possible?

  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 with—which was initiated by us with Young Engineers and then by the ETB—which 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 made—we can refer back to our earlier discussions—and 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 science?

  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 consultations—the 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 change—we will leave out the issue of whether it is global warming or not—and 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 said—is 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 science—reading popular science books, going to see shows and that kind of thing—and 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 issues—those 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 cases—as far as I can tell from the reports, all of which I have read—gone 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 presentations.

  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 stake—it 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 be conducted?

  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 say—some kind of almost psychological benefit for the participants—then 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 did.

  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 shown—perhaps not surprisingly—is 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.

  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.

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