Dialogue by numbers

I am writing this while sitting in a cafe in the exhibition area at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. Such are the wonders of modern technology! Gordon Brown’s speech is over and the crowds have more or less dispersed. All the action has moved to nearby tv and radio studios where the debate will be neatly packaged and no doubt unpackaged through the evening.  A few conference stragglers are talking behind me while visiting the ‘Going Digital’ stand.

An MP posed a good question to me last week in the course of a meeting with a group of science organisations: ‘Why should Government get into the business of promoting public understanding and dialogue in science?’ he said.
It’s also a pertinent question at a time when the Government continues to consult on its ‘Science and Society strategy for the UK’ – now under the auspices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  More of that later.

Having pondered the question for the past week my feeling is that there is a spectrum of activity the Government has a responsibility to undertake under the ‘Science and Society’ banner – from educating the public about swine flu at one end I suppose, thru captivating the interest of young people about the wonders of science and what remains for them to explore as the scientists of the future, to making the case for science investment and why scientists use the methods they do.

As important as the agenda are the methods of engagement employed in their furtherance.  Partnership with others will be at their core. And often Government’s role should be as an enabler rather than as a doer.  After all, it is a  gargantuan canvas on which government can not possibly apply all the paint.

Nonetheless I have been struck by the frustration expressed by some of our members about where the Government has so far got to with ‘Science and Society.’  After last year’s fairly lengthy public consultation process it has now set up a number of expert groups to examine more closely some key themes that came out of that consultation.  They are:

  • Science For All: aiming for a cultural shift in attitudes to science
  • Science and the Media: working towards both a science literate media and a media literate scientific community
  • Science and Learning: facilitating the learning of of Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
  • Science for Careers: influencing career choice and improving career advice
  • Science and Trust: increasing public trust in the conduct of science
  • I think the frustration of my colleagues is down to several issues: this is all taking a rather long time to put it mildly(some say the expert groups won’t report until well into next year); charity representation on the groups is minimal which is surprising given the third sector’s role in public education and engagement generally; public involvement is non-existent and, frankly; we could probably be learning and achieving just as much by ‘doing’ or learning on the job although I also think it is high time we did a proper critical appraisal of how much has gone into public engagement activities generally.  

    By the way you can read the notes of the last ‘Science for All’ meeting here although it has cancelled its public meeting in London scheduled for next week.  When I read the posted comments on the interactive site I found myself agreeing with a lot of the criticisms.

    Perhaps the problem is that Government is intuitively inclined to want to paint by numbers with each daub of paint carefully marked out by experts and it’s application precise, measured and measurable.  That and perhaps the fact that true engagement is about embracing challenging questions from the public rather than – as Government may wish – always putting out a certain line or message.

    Anyway, I am conscious that I am beginning to sound like a ‘glass half-empty’ person when the fact is that I sincerely hope it will be a case of ‘all’s well that ends well’ when we look back in twelve months time.  But in the meantime, I am keeping my money on what our members are doing day in day out.

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