Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (PE 02)

By Dr Penny Fidler, CEO

The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) welcomes this inquiry and is delighted to see that there is a strong desire to engage the public better and more openly in all policy making. ASDC wholly endorses this approach and feels that more fully involving the public in these discussions and decisions gives policy, in particular science policy, a greater depth and resonance with the public. It is after all the public in their broadest sense who need to support and pay for these policies once created.

We would urge you at this point to use the enormous national infrastructure that already exists, and already engages more than 20 million members of the public every year to discuss and explore science and innovation. This network is the national network of Science and Discovery Centres and Science Museums.

The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) brings together over 60 of the UK’s major public-facing science engagement organisations, from National Museums to major Science Centres in the UK’s regions. Together our members engage 20 million adults and children every year with the sciences, involving them with hands-on activities and discussions around the latest issues in science. They have on-the-ground expertise in running these engagement programmes, and between them cover every science content area.

This network makes up the UK’s largest publically accessible network dedicated to both informal science learning and family science engagement. Collectively they enable 385,000 people every week (for 52 weeks of the year) to discuss, explore and delve into the world of science, technology, engineering and the environment. As organisations they are sustainable businesses, large employers and highly innovative social enterprises.

A huge opportunity exists here, because these centres are already embedded within their cities and regions. They already work closely with top researchers in universities, teachers and students in schools and the wider public in families. They capture a wide market, not just those with an interest in science. Indeed a recent study at Dundee Science Centre showed that 73% of visitors consider themselves “to have no involvement with science” (for example, have never worked in science or engineering and didn’t study science at any point). The reach that is offered by the 60 centres and their 20 million participants is surpassed only by the BBC and web which come with their own caveats.

Further, all of the 60 major science centres and museums have established social media networks. As part of the core operations they tweet, blog and involve people on-line. If you want to engage wide audiences through social media, this infrastructure exists and has tens of millions of engaged followers. It could easily be used to engage people with certain areas to feed into policy making. Clearly social media is only part of the answer as it appeals to only a subset of people, with a subset of interests but nevertheless the reach is impressive. In addition direct email to the many hundreds of thousands of contacts and multipliers (eg teachers and community leaders) could have a vast effect if those emails come from a trusted and known source such as their region hub for science, and their views are being specifically sought.

ASDC would fully support the use of various methods to engage the public in the policy making process. One method is not sufficient. Using face to face dialogue, direct contacts, social media, broadcast and print media are all needed. Capturing the gaming community of young voting age adults is also an untapped market in this arena.

ASDC would urge that any public engagement happens early enough in the cycle to be useful. We know from a wide range of face-to-face Government consultations that science centres and museums have been involved over the years, that the public is happy to give their time, ideas and views, provided they are sure their input will be part of the evidence used to make the decision. To engage and collect evidence, and then not use it, breaks trust which is hard to regain.

On the issue of trust, there is clear evidence (eg from earlier BIS/MORI surveys into public perceptions of science) that the question of who is providing the information plays a key role, and that politicians and journalists are rated considerably lower as trusted sources than more community based and local actors. We suggest that as part of this inquiry you also strongly consider the evidence on this issue of who the public trust in relation to science and other subject areas, and this is key to your decision.

Finally, ASDC member centres range widely in geography and content specialism, from The National Space Centre in Leicester who discuss the latest in space science on a daily basis with their hundreds of thousands of visitors, to the Centre for Life in Newcastle specialising in the biosciences with a particular expertise in stem cells and new technologies in the life sciences. By using the national network of science centres and science museums that already exist and reliably attract 20 million people through their doors each year you can cover every area of science content, in every part of the UK in a cost effective manner.

If you would like to see the coverage of the UK, please visit www.sciencecentres.org.uk and look at the map.

October 2012

Prepared 31st May 2013