Science communication and engagement Contents

2Science awareness and communication

Public attitudes to science

7.Following the Lords Science and Technology report on Science and Society in 2000, BIS commissioned Ipsos MORI to survey Public Attitudes to Science. The most recent such survey, in 2014, found that public interest in science was high and rising:

The UK public overwhelmingly think it is important to know about science. Over eight-in-ten (84%) agree that science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest, and seven-in-ten (72%) agree that it is important to know about it in their daily lives.7

A recent Wellcome Trust ‘Monitor and Culture Tracking Survey’ by King’s College London found that public interest in science is high, with 77% of people interested in medical research and 63% of people interested in hearing from scientists about their research.8

8.These surveys have also shown, however, that while the public has developed a more positive attitude towards science over the past 30 years, most people still lack a personal connection or understanding of science.9 The Public Attitudes to Science survey, for example, found that “people still do not know much about how scientists work”, and that there was “low trust in science journalism”.10

9.Cultural perspectives can influence both how science information is disseminated and how it is absorbed, as Soapbox Science, a public outreach platform for promoting women scientists, explained:

Political views, religious background and systems of beliefs can particularly matter when scientific consensus on a given issue is not reached: If not carefully considered, these views can alter the objective presentation of the science and alienate a proportion of the audience.

It is of paramount importance that a diversity of senders gets to participate in science communication initiatives. This is by far the best way to ensure that the science communicated takes into account the variety of communities’ traditions and outlooks found in the UK. By providing a diverse range of role models who get to share their passion for science with the general public, science communication initiatives have a real opportunity not only to engage more people with science, but also to ultimately help increase the cultural and socio-economic diversity within the scientific community.11

Boaty McBoatface

10.An illustration of how engaged the public can be in science matters, and a case study of how to engage with a wide audience, was provided by the initiative by the Natural Environment Research Council in 2016 to name its new polar research ship.12 The most popular suggestion was ‘Boaty McBoatFace’, which received 11 times as many votes as the name subsequently selected by ministers (‘Sir David Attenborough’).13

11.The Science Media Centre highlighted at the time that:

The entire nation have been discussing a polar research ship. And they’ve all heard of NERC. How many other scientific research councils could they name?14

Media coverage of our evidence session in April 2016 with NERC prompted numerous tweets and emails, including for example:

As a member of the public I wanted to write to let you know that I approve of the way the NERC have handled the situation [ … ] The process raised the attention of the organisation; certainly I had never heard of NERC before. I have also never been motivated to write to a select committee before, so their PR actions can show that as a positive benefit as well.15

Please keep the public engaged. Humour is often the best way to keep that going. For example, I detested the name at first, but it has grown on me and I quite like it now.16

Give the public something more serious to engage with and they’ll engage with it more seriously.17

The vote brought this vessel to my attention. I do STEM outreach to Y6 & Y8s and will be using it as a career example.18

Well it got my kids asking about research vessels, never would have happened without McBoatface!19

12.In May 2016, science minister Jo Johnson MP announced that the ship would be named RRS Sir David Attenborough, with one of its remotely operated submarines Boaty McBoatFace.20 He had previously been reported as saying that the Government wanted a name [for the ship] that “lasts longer than a social media news-cycle and reflects the serious nature of the science it will be doing”.21 While the Government’s selection is understandable, it may end up curtailing public engagement in future similar events. As one of our contributors observed:

What happened to public engagement? The public were engaged, and now overridden.22

Engagement with young people

13.Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) plays a vital role in equipping young people with the knowledge and skills needed to participate in and contribute to society. Many have expressed concerns over many years about a persistent STEM skills gap. We highlighted in our Digital Skills Crisis report last year that “the Government needs to focus on other areas beyond gender - looking at other diverse backgrounds such as disability, ethnicity and disadvantaged socio-economic groups - so that children and young people can have a wide range of role models to inspire them to study and pursue careers in STEM”.23 Following from this, we are currently undertaking a separate inquiry into the STEM skills gap.24 Particular fields are predicted to have, or are already experiencing, significant STEM skills gaps that will negatively affect the economy.25 The Government’s recent Industrial Strategy Green Paper represents the latest in a succession of government initiatives over more than a decade to tackle this problem.26 The 2017 Spring Budget made a commitment to invest in improving technical education, raising the status of technical education.27

14.In our inquiry we looked at whether science communication, rather than reform of institutions or curricula, has a role to play in addressing to the STEM gap. King’s College London’s ASPIRES programme has sought to identify the influences in 10–14 years olds’ career choices.28 29 The study found parent-child relationships played a particularly important role in shaping attitudes towards STEM subjects, but also a widespread association of science and scientists with being ‘brainy’, which put some off.30 Imperial College London have recommended greater diversity in popular and media representations of those ‘who do science’ to help overcome that barrier.31

15.Recognising the value of parent-child relationships, particularly mothers, in shaping attitudes towards STEM subjects, the ASPIRES project found that the most important sources of influence of children’s aspirations at year 8 are family members or close family friends who have a science related job or have a high interest in science.32 King’s College London defined this as ‘science capital’ and is seen as:

A ‘holdall’, or bag, containing all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources that you acquire through life. It includes what science you know, how you think about science (your attitudes and dispositions), who you know (e.g. if your parents are very interested in science) and what sort of everyday engagement you have with science.33

16.The dimensions of science capital include scientific literacy; science-related activities, values and dispositions; knowledge about the transferability of science; science media consumption; participation in out-of-school learning contexts; family science skills; knowledge and qualifications, knowing people in science-related roles and talking about science in everyday life.34 Research by Enterprising Science showed that the more ‘science capital’ (paragraph 15) a young person has, the more likely they are to study science post–16.35 However, the ASPIRES survey showed that 27% of all 11–17 year olds have low science capital, and more than that level from disadvantaged schools and communities.36

17.Informal STEM educational events and programmes have a role in inspiring students, often through hands-on activities that can add value to their school experiences. We received many positive and encouraging submissions from national and local science museums, nature clubs and festivals, all of which are doing invaluable work, not least in complementing formal STEM learning in schools.37 In recent years, events such as the Cheltenham Science Festival, the Big Bang Fair, the opening of the At-Bristol Science Centre and the Life Science Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, amongst others, as well as the increased visibility of science communicators have significantly raised the profile of public engagement with science. Dr Matthew Hickman from the Wellcome Trust told us:

There is an interesting question about what that role [of informal science learning] is, and whether it is simply to deliver the curriculum in a different setting [ … ] or whether there is a more affective element to it, about normalising the science, putting it into context and putting a bit more flesh on the bone. Science in school can too often be a body of facts that is to be memorised and regurgitated specifically for an exam, rather than a more holistic view of it.38

We recently considered proposals from the science community and the wider public as part of My Science Inquiry, suggesting areas for scrutiny39 Professor Becky Parker drew our attention to the work of the Institute for Research in Schools, which facilitates school children undertaking science research themselves.40

18.Surveys have found that significant numbers attend informal events: 20% of people went to a science museum—often free—in the last year, 33% a history museum, 36% a zoo or aquarium and 41% a nature reserve.41 Dr Simon Singh and Professor Richard Wiseman cautioned, however, that “the value of science festivals with high ticket prices is very limited: It is hard to see how the money being invested is cost-effective in terms of reaching new audiences.”42 Professor Louise Archer from King’s College London told us that young people across a wide age-range showed “very high levels of interest [in science]”, and that “it is not that students do not find science interesting: the wealth of very engaging media [ … ] around science is partly to do with that.43

19.Professor Archer nevertheless highlighted a problem in the stereotypes of science communicators:

It is fairly clear from our [ASPIRES] evidence that there are still widespread stereotypes around who is a scientist. [ … ] Young people and their parents are very much aware of people like Brian Cox as scientists. [ … ] There is still the idea that whether he is geeky or more trendy, or used to be in a band and has cool hair, scientists are still very brainy and are generally white, male and middle class. There is still more that could be done to challenge that.44

20.Part of the problem, the Institute of Physics told us, was that “many students, depending on their background, consistently receive a number of negative messages which reinforce their decision to not pursue science”. They concluded that “a long term strategy of engagement with young people, rather than one-off events is needed to challenge perceptions and convince more students that they are welcome in the world of science”.45

21.There are many diverse initiatives being taken forward to increase public awareness in and engagement in science, including many encouraging projects aimed at young people which complement science learning in formal education. They all play a vital part in topping up our ‘science capital’. In Government too, the campaign to name the new polar exploration ship showed that there is a great appetite for public involvement. The Government had to find an elegant solution by using the most popular name—’Boaty McBoatface’—for the ship’s remotely operated submarines rather than the ship itself.

Role of the media

22.Since 2000, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (previously BIS) has commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake a regular Public Attitudes to Science survey. The 2014 survey, the most recent, found that “the UK public are as enthusiastic about science as they have ever been”. It found that 59% of people listed television as one of their two most regular sources of information on science (with 42% specifying TV news programmes), 23% newspapers, and 15% online newspapers or news websites.46

23.However, the survey also highlighted public mistrust in the media’s science coverage. Only 28% of respondents thought that the statement ‘Journalists check the reliability of scientific research findings before they write about them’ was always or mostly true, and 71% believed that the media sensationalises science.47 Jerome Davies identified three problems arising from the media’s coverage of science, which can contribute to a “potentially dangerous distrust of science”:

Very few journalists are scientists. So the people interpreting the science generally don’t have the tools required to understand it. This is frequently highlighted by the media’s inability to use statistics correctly.

Media outlets, mainly in print and online, have their own agenda. Media outlets wilfully distort scientific findings to support their own agenda.

Media require sensationalism and science is seldom sensational. This can lead to distortion of scientific results as a sensational result will be reported widely, but boring results that contradict it won’t receive the same attention.48

24.The BBC Trust commissioned an independent review of the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage in 2011 by Professor Steve Jones from University College London.49 He found that BBC content was generally of a high quality and was exemplary in its precision and clarity, but he also highlighted some shortcomings. These included a lack of contact and cooperation between science programme-makers across BBC divisions; an over reliance on a narrow range of external information sources; and concern about the application of ‘due impartiality’ in its science coverage.50 An internal review of progress in 2014 concluded that the 2011 concerns about the “over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality in relation to science coverage [ … ] still resonates today”.51

25.In our inquiry, David Shukman, Science Editor of BBC News, described the state of progress since then:

It is improving, with exceptions [ … ] After the review, the BBC News ran a series of courses that everybody in news had to do. As its heart, the key thing was to explain scientific method, to help people understand the difference between what looks like science and really is science, and to be able to form judgements about the due weight that should be allocated in covering a topic. That has filtered through—no question.52

26.Beyond news coverage, drama programmes can change science perceptions and popularity, as seen by the ‘CSI effect’ where forensic science programmes have led to an increase in university forensic science students.53 David Shukman and Deborah Cohen, Head of BBC radio science, acknowledged however that beyond news reporting and documentaries they had little influence over the commissioning of science content in drama programmes. David Shukman told us:

I cannot claim to have any role in that [pushing science role models into non-science programming], apart from being encouraging whenever I get the chance. In news, I have a personal crusade to try to get young women scientists on air, whenever possible.54

Deborah Cohen similarly recognised that “it is very hard for us to influence everybody making programmes for the BBC”.55

False balance and sensationalism

27.An early case study of sensational science reporting, though one where the science community as well as the media performed poorly, was the alleged link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) triple vaccine and autism. The Lancet published Dr Andrew Wakefield’s study in 1998 which he claimed suggested a link56 and the media criticised the Government for not acting on it.57 Between 1998 and 2003, the immunisation rate fell from 88% to 80%, and was much lower in London and other urban areas.58 In 2004, the Medical Research Council found that there was no evidence linking MMR to autism.59 Many witnesses in our inquiry complained that the media chose to look at the dangers of the MMR vaccine rather than its benefits. Wakefield’s article on MMR was an example of misconduct in research;60 a subject we are examining in our separate ongoing Research Integrity inquiry.

28.Our predecessor Committee’s 2014 report, Communicating Climate Science, found sensational media reporting in a different field. They found that it was driven by an “appetite for a scare story” and the “desire to overstate claims made by one individual”. They criticised the inaccuracy of reporting in some newspapers, which they described as “inherently biased”, and highlighted that those newspapers “relied on their readership to distinguish between factual news reporting and commentary by columnists, and absolved themselves of any responsibility for the content of opinion columns”.61 Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, observed recently that “the climate debate is an example of where people have claimed to be experts who are not”.62

29.In our current inquiry, Imperial College highlighted a continuing problem of misapplied ‘balance’ in the media’s science reporting:

Both the under-use of balance and a polarising use of balance are symptoms of a failure of news reports to interrogate claims about scientific issues [ … ] News coverage builds an image of science as either an unassailable truth or a matter of opinion [ … ] At the other extreme, where science is presented as a matter of opinion, science is denied its ability to provide a baseline of uncontested knowledge supported by reliable data.63

Similarly, University of Oxford told us:

The tendency to give air time to opposing views in order to provide ‘balance’ creates the impression of an equal rift in scientific thinking, as opposed to coverage conveying the (significant) majority view.64

30.The Academy of Medical Sciences recently reported the findings of its seminar on Communicating evidence in the media. It emphasised that accurate and balanced media reporting was a responsibility shared between reporters and researchers, and identified some practical measures that each side could take to bring improvements.65

The pressures of the embargo and open access

31.Even without having sections of the media with an agenda to ignore particular areas of scientific consensus, the media’s challenge in scrutinising science developments is often made more difficult by the reporting embargo process. An embargoed science publication is typically shared with the media in advance of its publication date to gives journalists time to prepare their own coverage. The embargo system should reduce inaccuracies in news reporting, but AlphaGalileo Ltd, a news management company, explained the drawbacks it sometimes had:

News embargoes are a frequent problem. The primary purpose of news embargoes in research is to provide time for the media to research the story in more detail than provided by the release; assimilate the paper on which the release is based, discuss the news with other researchers; and hence deliver a balanced or if appropriate, a critical story. We receive embargoes of a few hours, and embargoed releases, where the paper on which the release is based, is not accessible to the media by the peer-reviewed journal until after the embargo has lifted. Both of these practices reduce the ability of the media to do its job properly. In these cases, it appears that the embargo is being used as news management by peer-reviewed journals.66

Imperial College London recommended that:

Some of the drawbacks of the embargo system could be addressed if press releases and the journal papers on which they are based were required to be publicly available and linked from online news reports as part of the embargo contract.67

32.Some have argued that making science publications more readily available, to the public as well as the media, would also facilitate better science communication more generally. The Higher Education Funding Council for England have stipulated that research must be ‘open access’ in order to qualify for its funding.68 A growth in the number of open access journals has been driven by author publication fees, rather than relying on traditional subscriptions which have often limited their readership to other scientists. Our witnesses nevertheless highlighted that open access would not on its own make science writing more accessible to a public audience. Dr Stephen Webster from the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College told us:

You can liberate your publishing milieu and make it quicker and more open, with open access for everybody, but if [the] research culture is still very much locked into pressure to publish, fear about promotion and worry about grants, you can be as open as you like, but it will not improve science communication.69

Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication at University of Hull, emphasised that language remained a barrier:

Much of the material published in open access journals [ … ] is no more accessible by a lay audience than when it was behind pay walls. Scientific publications are too often written in dry jargon filled prose which makes them incomprehensible by a lay person.70

Press regulation

33.In recent years there has been significant debate about the behaviour of the press, in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and newspapers paying police officers for confidential information. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry examined “the culture, practices and ethics of the press” and the regulatory regime for media misconduct.71 The Science Media Centre gave evidence on poor and misleading science reporting to the Leveson Inquiry, including on ‘false balance’ (paragraph 27).72 The Leveson Report, in 2012 nevertheless concluded overall that: “The evidence received by the Inquiry suggested that science reporting had improved in recent years, and that the majority of science reporting was responsible and accurate.”73

34.The Leveson inquiry process presented an opportunity to address misreporting of the sort which affects society as a whole (not just individuals), including the way science is sometimes misreported. The Leveson Report recommended a new—yet to be enacted—independent statutory body, to replace the Press Complaints Commission. The new body, with voluntary membership, would have a range of sanctions available to it, including fines and directing the prominence of corrections in subsequent publications. Leveson requested the Science Media Centre to produce best practice guidelines for science journalism which he subsequently welcomed, stating that any new regulator should take them into consideration.74 His report concluded that the new code must take into account “the interests of the public, including [ … ] protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being seriously misled”.75

35.There are encouraging signs of continuing improvement in the BBC’s already excellent science coverage. The position is less encouraging in the print and other media, which often have an agenda which allows inadequate place for opposing evidence. The phone-hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson inquiry, though about illegal media behaviour, will have done nothing to improve the previous mistrust of their science reporting. The Government should ensure that a robust redress mechanism is provided for when science is misreported.

7 Ipsos MORI for Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Public Attitudes to Science Survey (2014)

9 International Journal of Science Education, Attitudes towards science: a review of literature and its implications (2003)

10 Ipsos MORI for Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Public Attitudes to Science Survey (2014)

11 Soapbox Science (COM0122)

12 Natural Environment Research Council, Name Our Ship (March 2016)

13 Boaty McBoatFace’ 124,109 votes, Poppy-Mai’ (a 16-month-old girl cancer sufferer) 39,886 votes, ‘Henry Worsley’ (explorer who died in January 2016 while attempting to complete the first solo and unaided crossing of the Antarctic) 15,774 votes, ‘David Attenborough’ (wildlife broadcaster) 11,023 votes.

15 Victoria Blyth by email [not published]

16 Neil Doherty, by email [not published]

17 @scienceogram

18 @RobinGissing

19 @Davidson7470

20 Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, UK’s £200 million polar research ship named in honour of Sir David Attenborough (6 May 2016)

22 @GrantDenkinson

23 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Digital Skills Crisis, Second Report, Session 2016–17, HC 270

24 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Closing the STEM skills gap (launched 29 November 2016)

25 UK Commission for Employment and Skills, The Labour Market Story: Skills for the future - Briefing paper (July 2014)

26 Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Building our Industrial Strategy - Green Paper (January 2017)

27 HM Treasury, Spring Budget 2017 (8 March 2017)

28 Professor Louise Archer and Dr Julie Moote (COM0009)

31 Imperial College London (COM0071)

33 King’s College and the Science Museum, Science capital - Enterprise Science

34 King’s College London and the Science Museum, Enterprising Science

35 Ibid

37 Aberdeen Science Centre (COM0008), Cambridge Science Centre (COM0024), The Eden Project (COM0025), Jordell Bank Discovery (COM0026), Science Museum Group (COM0028), Catalysts Science Discovery Centre and Museum (COM 0031), Dynamic Earth (COM0044), At-Bristol Science Centre (COM0047), Glasgow Science Centre (COM0049), Dundee Science Centre (COM0050), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (COM0051), Explorer Dome (COM0081), British Science Association (COM0085), Botanic Gardens Conservation International (COM0089)

38 Q124

39 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Future Programme: ‘My Science Inquiry’, Ninth Report, Session 2016–17, HC 859

40 The Institute for Research in Schools (MSI0045); My Science Inquiry evidence session Qq35–39

42 Dr Simon Singh and Professor Richard Wiseman (COM0048)

43 Q87

44 Q89

45 Institute of Physics (COM0087)

46 Ipsos MORI for Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Public Attitudes to Science Survey (2014)

47 Ibid

48 Jerome Davies (COM0013)

50 Ibid

52 Q78

53 The Economist, The CSI Effect (22 April 2010); The Guardian, The Grisly Truth of CSI degrees (15 October 2009)

54 Q64

55 Q65

56 Wakefield A.J, Murch S.H., Anthony A., et al, Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, The Lancet RETRACTED (28 February 1998)

57 In 2001, further sensationalised media reporting followed the Prime Minister not publicly confirming if his son had been vaccinated (The Guardian, Tony Blair should have gone public over Leo’s MMR jab - Sir Liam Donaldson, (2 June 2013))

58 House of Commons Library, Measles and MMR statistics (updated 10 February 2009)

59 The Independent, Comprehensive MMR study finds no link with Autism (9 September 2004)

60 British Medical Journal, Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent, 12: c7452 (6 January 2011)

61 House of Commons Science & Technology, Communicating Climate Science, Eight Report, Session 2013–14, HC 254

62 Oral evidence taken on 25 January 2017, HC (2016–17) 949, Q69

63 Imperial College (COM0014)

64 University of Oxford (COM0043)

66 AlphaGalileo (COM0003)

67 Imperial College (COM0014)

69 Q126

70 March Lorch (COM0094), submitting in a personal capacity

71, Phone hacking inquiry: first hearing announced (2 September 2011)

72 Leveson Inquiry, Science Media Centre evidence, (24 January 2012)

75 Ibid

24 March 2017