Welcome back to those of you who left the rest of us to run the country for two weeks.
I must say that I spent the Bank Holiday weekend in a verily good mood having had a quick peek at the results of our annual member survey. This showed that 98% of our members say we meet their needs and 93% rated our services as good or very good. With results like that I imagine there will be pressure to call in the UN inspectors next time. But given that I am on to pastures new shortly, it’s nice to know I haven’t wreaked havoc and destruction on this fine Association over the last five years.
As my team will tell you, sad person that I am, I live and breathe surveys. I even survey my children regularly on what they want to do/eat/watch/visit etc so bad has it got. But there is one survey that I have been eagerly awaiting for, for some weeks…
The 2011IPSOS Mori Public Attitudes to Science Survey pubished today makes for fascinating reading. In fact I think it is one of those pieces of work that merits much deeper study and analyses over the coming months. Naturally, the PR around it has concentrated on the good news aspects – that 86% of people are amazed by the achievements of science. But, fair game, there has also been a lot in the coverage which has noted the public engagement concerns that come through. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills news release is here for good measure.
You’ll see that the Science Minister, David Willetts, has responded to this latter challenge – and it is a challenge – by re-iterating his commitment to public engagement. The news release goes on to refer to a number of ongoing programmes which are being funded by the Government. But c’mon David, you can do better than that. These surveys should be the basis if not the prompt for some strategic thinking by the Government. Perhaps it could even be a good first topic for the recomposed Council for Science and Technology (CST) when it next meets. Anyway, the point is, this is news we should use.
In that vein, I noticed a few nuggets of interest that are worthy of further consideration by my own sector:
That only 17% identified charities – or even universities for that matter – as funders of research…is a little disappointing. But the fact that no respondents saw the NHS as a funder of research is simply worrying. However, it doesn’t explain whether they see research as an important activity of the NHS which is a different sort of question.
I was struck by the huge amount of data and discussion about public perceptions around science regulation. That 88% of people feel regulators should communicate and engage with the public sends a strong message to whoever is going to lead the new Health Research Agency (HRA). It also debunks some of the things I have said previouly that a new HRA shouldn’t go OTT on public engagement.
The low understanding of stem cell research and clinical trials suggests we have much more to do to underline the importance of both to indivuals, as well as to the the country’s overall wealth and health.
That people tend to trust scientists funded by universities (83%) and the charities (76%) most is something that I suppose those of us in these sectors can feel pleased about. But lower response rates for the private sector will not serve us well in the long-term. We all need to communicate the important role these valued partners play.
Inevitably the reactions to the survey so far have pinpointed the ‘engagement gap’ that exists between the 66% of people who say scientists should consult the public more, and the more than half who say they are not interested in being involved. But, and this is where can surveys frustrate more than they illuminate, it would be helpful to know what might spark their involvement.
The latter point is the perennial concern for those interested in public engagement. How we choose to interpret it is critical. The detractors of public engagement often point to it as the reason for less effort. I see it as the reason for more. Engagement is often about ensuring that people have ‘access and opportunity,’ it is rarely about marshalling people just to get some satisfying numbers about attendance at the end. Indeed, if interpreted in the latter way, I think we ultimately set ourselves up for failure.
What this survey tells us is that, while we might rejoice in some of its conclusions, we need to think more deeply and work much harder at making science meaningful to, and inclusive of, its many publics.