Science and Society

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.

I am in Denmark on a study visit looking at how they do innovation. More on that in a few days time I hope.

In the meantime colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) sent me through the link to their revised vision, aims etc which was published on their website last week.

Here is the link:

You’ll remember I let off steam about their original vision a few months ago.

It feels like a step forward. I am particularly pleased about the inclusion of public involvement in research governance as one of the aims, assuming they mean it in the sense of an active partnership between researchers and the public. I think they are continuing to want comments so please do send them in if you have time. It would be great to see a partnership developed to support public involvement in other scientific disciplines not just medical research.

I noticed that they had recently started a citizens council as well – not very large in number i think but it’s a beginning.

And if you already have one you can always re-gift it (to me)!  This is a new science writing competition for researchers and I shall be one of the judges I am delighted to say.
The ‘Access to Understanding’ writing competition for bioscience researchers has been launched by Europe PubMed Central and The British Library in recognition of the importance of enabling access to, and understanding of, scientific research.  The closing date is 11th January 2013 and further details including the entry criteria can be found by following the link above or clicking on the picture below.
Access to Understanding
The awards ceremony for Access to Understanding will be one of a series of events during The British Library’s ‘Inspiring Science‘ season held in March to coincide with Brain Awareness Week and National Science & Engineering Week celebrations.  If you check out the website over the coming weeks you will find details of other science-related events that may be of interest.
This also gives me an excuse to add some colour to the blog for a change other than my curious writing style of course.

I’ve been meaning to post this ever since it came across my Twitter feed some weeks ago.

If you go on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Science and Society Strategy pages you’ll see that they have published updated action plans for each of the ‘Expert Groups’ set up in 2010.  These groups were tasked to identify and take forward work in specific areas: the media, careers etc.  Progress varies widely and in some cases – such as the group focusing on ‘Trust’ – things are in a bit of limbo (you’ll just have to trust me on that one!).  Anyway, here’s the link to the rather euphemistically called ‘Science for All’ group as it seems the most relevant to (y’all you) people who might read my blog.

Clearly there’s some good work embedded in all this detail and BIS is asking for comment and feedback on what has been achieved.  But it’s not entirely clear to me what the impact has been.  And that is sort of curious given the onus on everyone else to demonstrate the outcomes of their work.

Fundamentally, I have always thought that the decision to go down this route of ‘Expert Groups’ had a number of flaws – beginning with the lack of inclusiveness.  Most of all that it suffered from not having a clearly articulated over-arching strategy and philosophy which conveyed how it all hangs together.  So it tends to come across as being a disjointed programme even if it is not behind the scences.  Plus you can’t help but think the onus has been on working vertically downwards through existing communities of practice rather than on developing networks and partnerships that break down boundaries.  As I say, that’s how it seems to me.  Which is a shame because I have had a little indirect contact with the team there which suggests this is an area of interest.

I say this with some hesitation because it will likely betray my complete ignorance of the subject.  But, for all the many faults of the EU and what it does around science and innovation, I rather warm to its Science and Society ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ framework which has just been published in leaflet format.  At least it conveys a sense of vision and ambition and focuses on areas that really do seem to be about bringing society and science together.

Perhaps the advent of a new Chief Scientific Officer in 2013 will see the whole programme given a new lease of life.