Science communication and engagement Contents


Despite the strong interest in science in many quarters, there is a collective need to do more to take science to those who are not currently engaged. It was encouraging to see that the competition to name the new polar research ship received 124,000 votes for ‘Boaty McBoatface’.

There is a wide range of initiatives by organisations to increase public awareness of and engagement in science, including many encouraging projects aimed at children and young people which complement formal science learning. They all play a vital part in further building our ‘science capital’. However, further efforts are needed to change the long-standing cultural biases that pervade science.

The BBC has made improvements to its science coverage, although there is an opportunity for it to widen its coverage beyond news and documentaries. The position is less clear in the print and other media which often have an agenda with inadequate place for opposing evidence.

There are concerns over the media’s misuse of ‘balance’ and its sensationalism. The illegal media behaviour which prompted the Leveson inquiry, will have done nothing to improve the public’s mistrust of science reporting. The Government should ensure that a robust redress mechanism is provided for when science is misreported.

The Government has a responsibility for fostering and facilitating science engagement in its policy-making. It should continue to maintain and strengthen national programmes such as Sciencewise and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Their programmes should be routinely used across all government departments, so that public opinion is fully captured in developing government policy where science is involved.

Science, politics, finance and the law are all components in the policy-making process. When these components do not fully align, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that trade-off decisions between what the ‘science’ says, what is affordable and legal, and ultimately what the public will accept, are transparent. It is not unreasonable for the Government to weight scientific evidence to a lesser or greater extent, but where they do not follow the results they must ensure that they do not dismiss or discredit legitimate scientific evidence. The public consultation process unhelpfully pitches science and other factors together which makes it difficult for a clear foundation of scientific understanding to be established without being co-opted—and misinterpreted—by the political debate. The consultation process should be adjusted so that it addresses the scientific issues separately from the political and other trade-offs. We believe this could bring significant benefits for public engagement and reduce unnecessary disputes over the essential science. Such a separation could allow researchers to more readily confine their debate contributions to the science. If they also contributed to questions on policy implementation and the political trade-offs, that would be more transparent.

We agree with the recommendation made by Lord Stern that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) should encompass a definition for ‘impact’ in the system’s assessments that includes a closer association with policy-making. The Government has now abandoned plans for an ‘anti-lobbying’ clause in government contracts and grants, which for research grants would have sent precisely the opposite message to the one needed—that there should be the widest and fullest possible science communication and engagement.

24 March 2017