Comment: Don’t stand in the way of the Government’s new science strategy if you are a citizen

Because you might be hit by a £30M laser. Or a ‘catapult’ at double the price. But you certainly won’t be bowled over by its commitment to public engagement.

Yesterday the Government published its long-awaited Science and Innovation Strategy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30515346
The plan sets out a comprehensive programme of investment totalling £2.9 billion of yours and my taxes.

A lot of this money is going into strengthening the UK’s world-class science infrastructure (buildings, labs, expensive kit etc) to ensure we remain competitive if not a leader on the global stage. You can read the document here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-for-growth-science-and-innovation

I have absolutely no argument with the strategy itself. It makes good sense. But I do take exception to a strategy that, apart from a few paltry paragraphs at the beginning of the document, fails to acknowledge the rightful role of citizens to influence and shape science that is about improving their society.

Today we have learnt how universities have fared under the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Under this exercise they have been assessed for the societal impact of their research. It is therefore ironic to say the least that the Government has done such a poor job in its strategy of communicating the anticipated benefits of its programme, of connecting this investment to the everyday lives of its citizens. Figures and diagrams about GDP are insufficient.

This is science for scientists. It betrays a deep-held introversion that you can be forgiven for concluding looks like the sort of self-serving and eventually calamitous behaviour of other sectors, most notably the finance industry. I have no doubt that many of the individual elements of the strategy could be the subject of great TV programmes hosted by Dr Brian Cox. But is this really the sum total of our ambition in Government when it comes to public engagement?

What’s odd is that two weeks ago I listened to a wonderful speech by the new Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman MP, in which he said that ‘citizen empowerment’ was the most exciting aspect of the innovation agenda for the next decade. That sentiment does not seem to be shared by others in Government.

The time has come for the Government to demonstrate that it trusts its citizens in the same way that it expects citizens to trust their custodianship of science funded with public money. But you won’t find it in this document.

Have a good day.

PS: I note I am taking part in another evaluation of the work of Sciencewise tomorrow. Why? It has been evaluated almost out of existence. Time for the Government to back it properly.

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