Whichever scientific discipline you prefer, the ultimate goal is to carry out research in that subject. Your first experience of research is likely to be at university. After that, you might continue at an institution, or move to the private sector. Whichever course your research career takes, you’ll need to communicate your discoveries to the outside world. This is called Public Engagement with Science (PES) and it affects every scientific undertaking today.
The causes of the PES movement began about 50 years ago when it became clear that society was splitting along two different paths. In the Rede Lecture of 1959, CP Snow used the phrase ‘Two Cultures’ to describe the widening gap between arts and science institutions.
During the mid-century period, the celebration of science in newspapers began to dwindle and many innovations went unreported. This was a shame for the general public, who lost a connection with many important scientific advances, but the system seemed to work until the early 1980s when the cracks began to show.
Science isn’t perfect. As good scientists know, sometimes conclusions aren’t fully correct. This happened several times, such as during the BSE crisis when government scientists said British beef was safe to eat, only for it to be later shown that BSE can lead to the fatal disease CJD in humans, which has caused over 150 deaths since the 1990s.
The BSE fiasco was mainly caused by political pressure and a disregard for scientific uncertainties, however, because the public was so out of touch with science since the ‘split’ described by CP Snow, incidents like this led to the public distrusting science in general.
So how did we react? In 1985, the Royal Society published the Bodmer report, which demanded the public receive a better science education. But it was later criticised as its recommendations assumed the public were fault because they didn’t know enough science. These critics felt scientists should take some of the blame for not properly communicating their research, despite the research being funded by the public through taxes.
The next significant development was the House of Lords report in 2000, which recommended “that Research Councils and universities should strongly encourage communication training for scientists and, in particular, training in dealing with the media.” In summary, this report said that the public should be better informed about potential research by newspapers and television programmes, and that there should be dialogue with the public on the future direction of research, especially controversial research.
The result of this House of Lords report is the PES movement. Look out for it as it’s a useful thing to be aware of. It involves displaying your research at fairs, talking to journalists about new discoveries, and taking part in public dialogue through citizen juries, consensus conferences or deliberative polling.
The structure of these public dialogue events is for a group of people representative of the public to discuss proposed research with scientists, politicians and businessmen. The discussion explores potential benefits and costs of the research for wider society, and the outcome will have a direct effect on whether or not the proposed research is carried out.
Public Engagement with Science isn’t any single dialogue or discussion. It’s an ongoing process. A good example is in the field of Nanotechnology, which has the potential to be useful in engineering, computing and many other disciplines. At every stage, the public are having a say about how that potential is best realised. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority have public consultations about the direction of research. Their latest is on mitochondrial genetic disease. Have a read to find out more about how the democratic process gets the public involved in research.
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