The Reith Lectures, Lord Rees and Science Citizenship

I am on the train back from taking part in a parallel universe (ok, session) about ‘impact’ at the Professional Association of Research Managers and Administrators (PARMA) annual conference in Manchester.

When I get abck I am looking forward to catching up on the second of the Reith Lectures being given this year by Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society.

The first, braodcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1 June, provoked a lively debate on the BBC’s website about science, scientists, their role in society, trust….you name it.  In that sense Lord Rees fulfilled his brief for the night – it certainly didn’t lead me to where I thought when I saw the title – ‘The Scientific Citizen.’ 

Lord Rees did a fine job of setting the scene and advocating the need for wider discussion in society about science and its consequences.  But his verbal schematic for how to make this happen felt unfinished – indeed he seemed to drop several hints that he will develop it more fully over the remaining lectures.  I hope so.

Lord Rees’ prescription on how to promote better public engagement seemed to focus on two things – encourage and support scientists in the art of communication and so better fulfil their obligations as citizens and; encourage the media to critique as well as report on science as it becomes public.

We could debate the latter forever and I have no doubt that somewhere in the blogosphere that discussion is happening.  There’s probably even a media studies course module on it as well.

But another – and dare I say it radical notion – might be to explore a more bottom-up approach to public engagement in which the goal is not just to excite the public as if they were sedant viewers or listeners only, but ‘activate’ them as if they themselves were citizens of the scientific endeavour and the community which advances it.

Citizenship in this respect might take many forms – simple recognition of the public as ‘members of the community’ (the dictionary definition of citizen), participation in clinical trials, their sharing of data, their role as ambassadors for research in speaking to the media or in village halls.  When they next visit their GP surgery or NHS hospital it would be explicit to them that they are contributing to research and that they have associated rights and responsibilities. At the very least it would be about encouraging people to think scientifically, to look for evidence and to ask cute questions of the latest ‘breakthroughs’ they read about.  I could go on.

I think if we start with this underpinning philosophy or mindset it might lead us to a different place even if we don’t attain the full vision of citizenship.

Working through professions, professional bodies or other organisations to generate public interest and awareness will only get us so far.  That is less their fault than the fact that modern society is more diffuse than ever before.  Nor are we talking about PR – see the recent Times blog for a very interesting discussion about PR versus communications in science.  And I think the media is…well, the media although significantly better than it was.

So, for me, the scientific citizen is not about helping scientists be better citizens but about giving the public a citizenship role in furthering science.

I was even thinking of sharing with you my early design for a Citizen Active in Research Endeavour (CARE) card.  This I intend to present at my next GP appointment much like a business card, expressing my wish to converse with him about research and participate in clinical trials etc.  I wonder how he will react given his propensity to print out a prescription mid-way through every sentence I ever utter.

There, my Brief Lecture is over.  Sorry to get so philosophical and I hope you enjoyed the real one today. 

Later in the week normal service will be resumed and I shall publish our evidence to the Academy of Medical Sciences’ review of research regulation.  I bet you can’t wait.

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