Avoiding Laurel and Hardy when it comes to science can be difficult for the public

An early start today finds me waiting for a flight to Belfast where I am speaking at the 9th Scientific Conference of the Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS) charity.

Just time enough to pen a quick blog then. Lucky me. Poor you.

Last night I was looking at my papers for a meeting about stratified medicine being hosted by the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) this Friday. It follows their report ‘Realising the potential of stratified medicine’ published a few months ago.

For some reason the image of Laurel and Hardy came to mind. Or rather those scenes where one of them is carrying a ladder on their shoulder. And the other weaves and ducks to avoid the ladder as it is swung about wildly. Until they get knocked out of course.

Why should the Academy conjure such images in my mind?

Well, it’s not the Academy as such I hasten to say. Rather it is that, as a member of the public, when it comes to cutting edge science or, in this case, health research it can feel like we are that person who is ducking and diving. And, as with Laurel and Hardy, the intentions of many promoting the science is good. It’s just it’s all a bit clumsy. Quite often as a lay person it does indeed feel like being in a silent movie. But I am not quite hanging of a clock in Brooklyn yet.

I heard the outgoing Chair of the HFEA, Lisa Jardine, say on the Today programme a few months ago that science communication needs to – and I paraphrase – enter the era of the ‘talkies’ if we are going to future proof science with the sort of public confidence that is able to help us weather bad times and good. She was implying that we need to have conversations well before conversations currently take place. If that makes sense. Who hosts that is a key question for me.

[i should add that Sciencewise is currently funding a public dialogue exercise in stratified medicine]

Also last night I filled out the British Science Association (BSA) survey (now closed – why only open for 2 weeks I ask!?). This is part of their strategic review. They wanted to know what I thought about them and the work they do around what is horribly called ‘Science and Society.’

BSA is like the BOAC of science communications. It flies some highly airworthy Comets and the occasional Concorde. But it lacks a fleet of Boeings or Airbuses to do anything of scale. Hopefully that might be about to change.

Anyway, I don’t know whether BSA is the right host for Lisa Jardine’s conversation. However, I do feel instinctively drawn towards the idea of a consumer body in science or even more specifically health research. A body that would seek out the best deal for you and I, the consumer, of science as it reaches the market place. Why not?

It would certainly correct the market failure of research funders and others in promoting the interests of consumers as thrown into sharp relief by campaigns such as AllTrials. Those you would expect to do this – such as our charities – are too compromised by their own funding interests (as the public often point out in surveys). Others are poorly equipped to provide the sort of independent critical appraisal that would have credence with the public. A ‘Which?’ of science.

In the meantime, you take care now. Don’t walk under any ladders.

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