Babraham Institute pins down public attitudes to basic science

Public dialogue exercises can come across a bit like the public engagement version of a ‘lock-in.’  They are undoubtedly enjoyable – for all concerned including the participants.  However, there can be a feeling that people are being force-fed information until they recant their ways!

That said, this tool (of choice, for many) is a useful way of exploring people’s views on issues in-depth and over time.  I myself used to post a lot of these studies on this blog because I genuinely found them useful and thought they deserved a wider audience.  But I have done this much less  in recent times because the days are shorter and the studies are more numerous.

This one came out on Wednesday and was commissioned by the Babraham Institute and BBSRC, supported by ScienceWiseIt interested me because it sought public views on fundamental bioscience (the stuff that happens in laboratories) and the Institute’s future strategy for research into ageing.

Contrary to the views often held about public involvement in basic science – too hard for them to grasp, they will score it less high than clinical trials – the study demonstrates that people are not only interested in it but see it as an important priority.

In guiding the Institute they emerged with six principles for the future:

  • Be fundamental, in-depth and a ‘building block’
  • Be fair, helping the greatest number of people and/or most vulnerable
  • Enable collaboration
  • Help people control their health through understanding
  • Work to increase quality of life
  • Bring commercial benefit

That last one is very interesting given how the debate usually goes on industry and commercialisation.

The tension between researchers and public about whether it is possible to involve people in this sort of science and at a strategic level is laid bare in this rather telling paragraph:

Participants saw some opportunities for a deeper ‘collaboration’ with the Babraham Institute. They felt the public could be engaged with some specific areas of work and might become informed enough to join
strategic discussions, for example ethics, epigenetics, and disease
driven vs fundamental research directions; and that these were subjects where lay opinions would be valuable and should drive strategy.
They felt it was incumbent on a publicly funded Institute to allow the taxpayer some say in decisions on how funds are spent. The public felt it was important for the credibility of public engagement that scientists
should be as involved in these engagements as possible.

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