Science and Technology CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (CLC069)

I write in response to the discussion during the oral evidence session on 9 October 2013 within the inquiry “Climate: Public understanding and policy implications”. My points relate to the Members’ discussion around the need for trusted mechanisms (a portal) to engage the public with climate science, and if such a mechanism existed. I believe it does, and I outline below the nature of this trusted portal which currently engages 20 million people every year in both cities and rural locations across the UK.

The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres brings together over 60 of the UK’s major science engagement organisations, including science and discovery centres, national science museums, environment centres and learned societies. Together, these trusted centres attract over 20 million visitors each year who take time to explore and delve into science in a hands-on, intriguing and personal way. The Association’s centres span all regions and countries of the UK and reach into a huge number of “hard to reach” communities. They collectively engage over two million school students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, who take part in science workshops, discussions, labs and science events.

The subjects covered by the science and discovery centres range from climate science to space science and from nanoscience to brain science. However, it is clear to all professionals working within the field of science engagement that there is no greater immediate need, nor indeed any greater challenge, than to engage people effectively and widely on the subject of climate science—and to do this very soon.

The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, with its vibrant and trusted national infrastructure and thousands of professional science engagement specialists could play a major role in helping people in all parts of the UK to engage with the latest climate science, and get people talking about the UK’s policy response.

These lively science centres already operate successfully and sustainably in this engagement sphere; they are embedded in their local communities with excellent relationships with university science, industrial partners, schools, teachers and families. Indeed, the work they currently do is valued highly enough by families, schools, teachers and the wider public that in most cities,1 people pay to visit, and visit repeatedly.

Science and Discovery Centres are experts in both engagement, and in science. Indeed, it is their raison d’être and their charitable mission. They are staffed by talented creative individuals with considerable expertise in all areas of the sciences, as well as communications, design, education, marketing, the arts and more.

The majority of ASDC member centres (from At-Bristol to the Eden Project, and from W5 in Belfast to the Science Museum in London) have already invested significantly in programmes and exhibitions to engage their publics with climate science. These range from lively evening events for adults, workshops for schools, family shows and carbon competitions right through to full hands-on climate exhibitions and formal dialogue events in partnership with ASDC and Sciencewise. They include content in all areas of climate science from earth observation to the latest low carbon innovations and engineering.

The following gives some examples of the potential science centres have to reach people in all parts of the UK and what could be achieved if these were focussed on climate science. Glasgow Science Centre attracts 280,000 people each year of whom 90,000 (32%) are school students brought by their teachers to take part in targeted curriculum-linked science workshops and activities. Thinktank, Birmingham’s Science Centre attracts 260,000 people annually, of whom 78,000 are school students taking part in science workshops and discussions. Family and leisure visitors at Thinktank take part in science shows, sleepovers, story-telling, meet the scientist and lab-based workshops. This pattern is replicated up and down the country—385,000 people visit ASDC member centres every week of the year.

The key to what science and discovery centres do is to start where their public is, and to take them on a journey rather than to impose upon them what someone feels they should know. Science centres offer families, adults and school children unusual and exciting opportunities to explore, discover, question, test and experiment on the world around them. The aim is not simply to fill people with facts, but to take them on a journey to spark their curiosity and to encourage them to continue asking questions about the world long after they leave our centres.

It is clear that the network of UK science and discovery centres and museums could mobilise in a national way to get people across the UK interested and involved in climate science and to start asking questions about what we collectively should be doing about it. Indeed ASDC already runs national programmes in this way, for example the current “Explore Your Universe” Programme in partnership with the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC). However to make a national climate change programme highly effective it needs to be carefully more carefully constructed than any other.

Climate change creates a specific issue in that most people in the UK have considered it at some level, and many have an entrenched position on it. That makes the issues of trust key, and that is in part why I write. Science and discovery centres and museums are trusted voices and environments. They are not arms of Government, they are local, and are always on the side of the visitors.

Our approach would be to work with the fields of behavioural psychology, health and social psychology and environmental psychology all of whom have expertise that would shape what we did. In addition we would want to bring together all we collectively and internationally know about behaviour change and game theory, cognitive dissonance and delayed gratification, all of which have a bearing on why people do and do not choose to change. Much too is to be learned from all the academic and grey literature (formal published non-academic reports) on behaviour change in seat belts, drink-driving, smoking, pensions and healthy living. All of this needs to be applied to any future discussions on climate change. Likewise, we would see it important for people to explore the process of science and how we get to a point where most scientists agree, as well as opening up the mistaken assumption that most of us have that humans act rationally.

We would also want to look at innovative and experimental programmes and what has worked. For example “global conversations” run by W5, the Belfast science centre, where pupils and teachers from Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland formed cluster groups with students in Ghana and Ethiopia and shared information on their views on climate change and sustainability and how it affects them. We would also look at the myriad of successful examples from Bristol, a European leader in sustainability and green innovation and communications. Indeed Bristol is the first UK city to win the title of “Green Capital of Europe” which it will host in 2015 because of its leadership in this area and because it has very high city wide rates of indicators such as cycling behaviours.

As a note, The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres also sees it as vital that people in all parts of the UK have open access to the very latest climate information and evidence. Sir Mark Walport, Chief Science Advisor is therefore visiting a number of UK science and discovery centres to share the latest climate science evidence and policy with the public and school students so they can hear it firsthand.

As a nation and as a global society we have some major challenges ahead. Addressing these challenges will require both scientific entrepreneurship and fundamental societal engagement and change and we feel we can help in this. We need our young people to be confident to experiment and innovate with science, technology and engineering and to become trail-blazers for a lower carbon future. We need our adult population to better understand the sciences, encouraging them to examine evidence and lobby for the policy changes needed for a bright low carbon future. We need to help people to find the delight of exploring the world around us whilst reducing our footprint on it.

Dr Penny Fidler is the CEO of The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres. She has a PhD in neuroscience from Cambridge University and has fourteen years experience working in the field of science engagement, including setting up a millennium science centre, running an Exhibitions and Neuroscience Consultancy and speaking in Parliament on the importance of informal science learning. She has also founded and directed many national strategic science engagement projects.

24 October 2013

1 As well as the UK’s Science and Discovery centres, ASDC membership includes all science-related National Museums who are funded by DCMS to enable free public entry.

Prepared 1st April 2014