Blog: public attitudes to science need more than a good fracking

It is not open yet. Not a jot of science has taken place there. But the tweet from NHS England yesterday and accompanying article heralded ‘the Crick’ for ‘pushing the frontiers of medical science.’ *

At this rate I think we have every right to be disappointed if the ‘Crick’ has not cured cancer, heart disease and other major killers within its first week of opening. But for the moment all we can really say about it is that it is empty although full of promise.

We do public self-congratulation particularly well across science don’t we? The bluster hides a more sobering picture. Of institutions finding life a little more complex. Indeed, I would say in a bit of a pickle. Often curiously unsophisticated in their judgements when caught in the public eye, lacking self-awareness of how their eccentricities play out.

Think about it.

The Royal Society is Nursing a right Royal hangover while struggling to find ‘Woman’s Hour’ on its crystal radio set. The Royal Institution was last seen driving round town in the passenger seat of a Foxtons fleet car driven by Winston et al. The Medical Research Council (MRC) is 100 and being measured for a new suit but you wouldn’t know it.

For some of our medical charities public interest in research will never be more than a marathon runner chained to the treadmill to keep on putting on pounds. Industry is alone in a room and has closed the door. Our Royal Colleges are to be found sunbathing in London parks singing ‘don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do? – actually what do we do now?’ And my beloved NHS and NIHR continue to befuddle patients with ever more convoluted acronyms that can only have been chosen in the manner of contestants on Blockbuster (that will be ‘p’ please Bob).

We should all be grateful that these strange events are largely forgiven by the many or simply lost in the overall mix of news and comment. Somehow! Would other sectors be quite so immune I wonder? Suffice to say I am sort glad we are.

Nonetheless we are at risk of a good hiding somewhere along the line. Why? Because the above eccentricities betray an institutionalised attitude to the public, a misinterpretation of, or insensitivity to their concerns that frankly sucks at times. Oddly, for entities that like to wag a finger at politicians for not respecting scientific evidence, they seem quite unwilling to invest in a better evidence base that would actually do them more harm than good.

Even where they do, their analysis of it can fall short.

For example, I was mildly taken aback by the Wellcome Trust’s blog for the Guardian on Monday about its public opinion tracker survey. The Trust is no different than any other organisation in fracking public attitudes to support its work. And it does many great things to build a better relationship between science and society. But I am not sure I felt a lot of insight into the public came through this particular piece. Its focus on scientific literacy – to give one example – just seemed to emphasise how little things have moved on.

Last week the above institutions and research organisations as well as many others celebrated the Chancellor’s spending review settlement for science. They welcomed the additional investment in infrastructure similar to the ‘Crick.’ As do I.

But i couldn’t help but wonder about the possibilities if we began to see public knowledge as part of the infrastructure too, and invested accordingly. But we do not, preferring to sit on our hands – and millions of pounds of reserves for that matter – and leave it to chance.

Trouble is, the longer we short-change the public the more likely it is they will pull us up short somewhere down the line.

* ‘The Crick’ is the new medical research centre being built in London near Kings Cross station

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