Science and Society

Sciencewise, the Government funded body which aims to improve science and technology policy-making by making better use of public dialogue, is celebrating its tenth birthday this year.

Set up in 2004 in the wake of the fiasco that was GM foods, Sciencewise has done much within Whitehall and Westminster to advance the case for a more open, robust and consistent approach to developing a dialogue with the public.  And to demonstrate how it can be done.  It can not have been easy.

Today it has published some lessons and reflection from the past ten years.  They are collected in a short booklet entitled: ‘The best of: Sciencewise reflections on public dialogue.’  There was also a webinar today which I could not attend.

Some of those lessons – such as the importance of public dialogue in the early stages of policy-making – may seem obvious.  But unfortunately they need rehearsing.  Dialogue in hindsight remains all too common (it is a key message coming from patients and the public in the ‘Breaking Boundaries’ review, for instance).

They are therefore timely reminders for those of you who are about to embark on, as I am, a piece of work involving public dialogue.  I am chairing the Health Research Authority’s (HRA) second public dialogue project.  The first can be found here.  We are just about to appoint the organisations to help us do the work and I know the resources and further reading in this pamphlet will help me and the oversight group stay true to the principles of public dialogue.

Some random thoughts came to me as I read the short version of the booklet.  It is true to say that in this age of small, central Government, there is now a real desire to get an insight into how the public think and feel about an issue so that policies can be more effectively and efficiently developed.  But Government’s do a poor job of sharing this insight as they develop policy.

Our dialogue exercises tend to focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’  We ask the public less about the ‘how.’  This would seem an oversight.  Government is less capable and less willing to do things from the centre and yet my sense is that the public still view Ministers and Government as bearing the most responsibility to make things happen.  Our discourse should be as much about correcting this assumption and getting their ideas on how to build new ways of getting things done.

It would have been nice to have heard reflections from people about how they feel  Sciencewise – in terms of individual projects and in the round – has changed the public debate about science and technology as well as the degree to which it has influenced policy and implementation.  I suspect it has been more than we think, that its influence has been considerable behind the closed doors of Whitehall.

Also, given the rich material that Sciencewise must now have at its disposal (as well as NIHR for that matter following Breaking Boundaries), surely there is a case for setting up a National Library of Public Dialogue and Involvement in Science)?

Lastly, I do hope we see another ten years of Sciencewise, I really do.  It has its faults and its critics but it is essential to public discourse on science issues.

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.

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.

Says Winston (‘Lord’ that is, not Churchill).

Saw this interview on the Energy and Environment Managementwebsite  and thought it worth posting because of Robert Winston’s criticism of the Government’s approach to public engagement in science.  It consists of two video interviews although you can get a sense of the major points of the interview from the written extract.

Couldn’t agree more.  See my post from a few weeks ago.

Apparently Robert Winston was in a feisty mood – I’ve never seen him in anything other than a feisty mood have you?

The Science Minister, David Willetts, blogs in today’s Guardian about the challenges for science writing in a world increasingly dominated by online media .

He richly articulates the terms of an interesting debate and seems to convey genuine interest in the subject and a sincere wish to hear views.

We must give the Online Media Group for Science initiative the chance it deserves not least because those who are members have respected voices in this sphere.

But three things.

First, there is much out there already which is energising and captivating which could simply be trawler rather than submitted – online and social media entries to AMRC’s excellent science communication awards for instance.

Second, it is a shame that having identified key aspects of the debate we are asked to channel our efforts into one specific component – namely outputs. As Willetts says himself there is so much more to the questions in this area than how we push information out.

Third and last, while money is tight, it seems a shame that participation in such initiatives can not be incentivised in some way. For a few dollars more….

Simon Denegri
CEO, Ovarian Cancer Action