Science communication and engagement Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Science awareness and communication

1.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. (Paragraph 21)

2.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. (Paragraph 35)

Science and policy-making

3.The Government has the primary responsibility for fostering and facilitating science engagement in its policy-making. It should 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. (Paragraph 52)

4.We agree with the Stern review’s recommendation that the Research Excellence Framework encompasses a definition of ‘impact’ in the system’s assessments that includes a closer association with policy-making. (Paragraph 53)

5.Science and politics (as well as finance and legal considerations) are at the heart of Government policy-making. When they do not fully align, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure trade-off decisions between what the science says, what is affordable and legal, and ultimately what the public will accept are transparent. The Government’s policy-making public consultation process often unhelpfully pitches science and those other factors together, so that a clear foundation of scientific understanding is not established without being co-opted—and misinterpreted—by the political debate. It is not unreasonable for the Government to weight scientific evidence to a lesser or greater extent, but where they do not follow the evidence directly, they must ensure that they do not dismiss or discredit legitimate scientific evidence. (Paragraph 60)

6.We recommend the Science Minister and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should discuss with the Cabinet Office, and the Treasury as the sponsor of the policy evaluation ‘Green Book’, the scope for the consultation process to address the scientific issues separately from the political and other trade-off. This could, we believe, bring benefits for public engagement and reduce unnecessary disputes over the essential science. Such a separation in the consultation process could allow researchers, if they wished, to more readily confine their debate contributions to the science. If they also contributed to questions of policy implementation and the political trade-offs involved that would be more transparent. (Paragraph 61)

7.We welcome the Government’s decision not to proceed with its plans to introduce an ‘anti-lobbying’ clause in government grants and contracts. If implemented, it would have contradicted the thrust of the reforms of the REF research funding system which are aimed at giving greater weight to ‘public engagement’ (paragraph 49). It would have sent precisely the opposite message to the one needed—that there should be the widest and fullest possible science communication and engagement. (Paragraph 64)

24 March 2017