Comment: Science could learn from the Co-op about plugging into the public mood

The Co-op Bank has been through some tough times lately. But yesterday it felt as if it had returned to form.

It announced the results of its latest ethics and values survey of its customers, staff and partners. The bank has had an ethical investment policy in place since 1992 and, since then, it has periodically asked its customers (I think this is the third) what it should prioritise under this policy: what causes should it invest in and what should it steer away from.

The latest survey released yesterday reached a whopping 76000 people. They gave a pretty clear message around not wanting to see the bank support pay-day lenders and those supporting gambling. Animal rights dropped down the list and outside the top five priorities people identified for the bank.

It seemed a powerful exercise that has now given the bank a platform – both a really strong guide and a set of principles – on which to base future business decisions.

Execution will be difficult and yesterday they were already being challenged by the media as to whether they would invest in ‘x’ versus ‘y’ company. It seemed a little bit of a hasty challenge in my view.

The next step for the bank must surely be about how to put these principles in place as well as the process they will need for reaching clear and transparent decisions. However, from the radio interviews I heard, no one could be mistaken that this is their intent.

Taking people’s temperature on a periodic basis is of enormous value to policy-makers just as it must be this morning to the executives at Co-op. So It’s a shame we can’t find it in ourselves to approach the testing of the public mood about research in quite the same and with the same intent as the Co-op.

Things like our Public Attitudes to Science Survey are probably done too far apart (every two years) and more importantly seem more focused on convincing an understandably neurotic science sector that the public like scientists more than they do estate agents. They do!

At the other end of the spectrum I find myself increasingly wary of the neutrality of some public dialogue exercises where a group of the public are ‘worked on’ over a period of time and then everyone celebrates the fact they were persuaded to think the right way about patient data or animal rights of clinical trials. Try scaling that up to £60 million!

Neither should be discounted. Yet the fact that the link between these approaches and actual policy remains obtuse suggests those higher up do discount them.

I would argue that we need something else in our toolkit.

A three monthly tracker poll – in addition to the public engagement work we already do and preferably conducted by an independent organisation – would help us understand the public mood and how it is changing (note the previous point about the Co-op exercise and the issue of animal rights).

Plugging in to the public consciousness every so often is all very well. But a more permanent connection with the public mood is what we need.

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