This evening I returned from the TalkScience event at the British Library and noticed that an update from the ‘Science for All’ advisory group set up many moons ago, had been posted last week. The brief notes report a renewed enthusiasm in the group for the task of delivering better public engagement. But the minute of the discussion about investigating the merits of involving the public in designing public engagement did feel almost Eastern Bloc in its obfuscation of what is surely plain common sense.
For the true believers among us I think we can safely assume that BIS lacks any real drive or purpose when it comes to its Science and Society programme. I just hope it doesn’t become another piece of space debris.
For how short-sighted and dangerous that could be? Science and its scientists may feel that it has more or less put to bed many of the more contentious issues of the last decade but who knows what idiosyncratic fear may grip the public and its media in the future. Surely science can not feel that a default position of asking ‘is anyone out there?’ in terms of public engagement is good enough anymore. Or has it learned nothing from the past.
Tonight Tracey Brown, Director of Sense about Science, highlighted the need for us to focus our attention on getting the public to ‘Ask for Evidence’ if we are to manage issues in the future. She is right. But we can not rely on this alone.
Above all, we must listen to the public much better than we do currently. If we can invest in all sorts of technology to listen to crackling far-off galaxies, surely we can invest a fraction of such a budget in listening to our own citizens. And a public attitudes survey every two years is not going to do it in the new world of social networking and social media .
This morning I attended a rather good conference hosted by PR Week on social media strategies. Many of the speakers represented household names such as Kodak and the BBC. It is in turns both inspiring and flabbergasting to hear about the time, effort and resource they are investing in not just communicating through social media but listening to its chatter to learn more about their consumers.
A number even employ their own Chief Listening Officer to listen to and make sense of this traffic whether it be on twitter, Facebook, online consumer boards or other media.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the public engagement stuff that the Royal Society, Wellcome Trust and others do but are they truely listening to their publics or simply choosing to hear and respond to that which they would like to hear. It is a valid question.
For them and others across the science landscape such as the Science Media Centre or Sense about Science, who both do such a good job with traditional media, it must be difficult to know where to start. But we can do no worse than by beginning to listen.
So, Mr Willetts, how about showing some invention and appointing the UK’s first Chief Listening Officer for Science. It would be a start.