I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago where engaging the public (or “publics” to be more accurate) in science came up.  In the course of discussions, I mentioned an initiative by Research Councils UK to involve members of the public in developing a call for research proposals on the use of nanotechnology in healthcare. To which one eminent US scientist responded with words to the effect of “that sounds like a really bad idea!”

The exchange confirmed a suspicion I have had for some time that public engagement on science isn’t taken that seriously in the US.  Sure, there’s lots going on at various levels to communicate science to the US public, and to make sure people put science “in its rightful place” in their lives – which to most scientists is somewhere above God and family.  But strategic and coordinated action on engaging people – entering into a two-way exchange of ideas that potentially influences both sides – that’s much harder to find.

So I was fascinated by a series of documents that landed on my virtual desk this morning from the UK that outline Britain’s approach to public engagement on science – including why anyone would want to do it in he first place!

The documents are from Research Councils UK (RCUK) – a strategic partnership between the seven UK Research Councils that enables them to work together synergistically on key issues.  The documents set out RCUK’s strategy for public engagement with research, provide a guide to researchers and teachers  on engaging young people with cutting edge research, and outline the benefits of public engagement for researchers.

The three documents map out a clear rationale for why public engagement on science is important, and how the UK intends to pursue it.  Take this for instance from the updated Public Engagement with Research strategy [PDF, 80 KB]:

“If we involve and listen to the public (and encourage our research communities to do so) then our decisions and research will be informed by their views, and therefore more likely to have enhanced impact in return for the investment.

Similarly, if we talk with the public (and encourage our research communities to talk to the public) about the outputs of our research and their implications and applications then society will share in the benefits of that knowledge, whether for their health, wealth or culture, and therefore helping to maximise the impact of that research.

And if we encourage researchers to interact with schools to enrich students’ experiences then we can help improve the supply of skilled people to the research base and the UK economy and encourage more to act as informed citizens.”

There follows a detailed strategic plan for recognizing and responding to public views, inspiring young people and supporting researchers.

The second of the three documents takes on interactions between young people and research.  Titled “Engaging Young People with Cutting Edge Research: a guide for researchers and teachers” [PDF, 900 KB], it provides clearly laid out information for researchers and teachers, together with resources for both groups.  The guide doesn’t hedge – headlining the section for researchers [the first section in the guide] is the question

“Working with schools and young people – how can it benefit me as a researcher?”

This is a hundred and eighty degree departure – and a very welcome one – from old-school approaches, which inevitably asked what young people can get out of science.  Here’s a quick summary – from the report – of what researchers might expect to gain from working with young people:

Source: Research Councils UK Engaging Young People with Cutting Edge Research: a guide for researchers and teachers

The third report builds on this theme by addressing the broader benefits of public engagement to researchers.  In the rather aptly titled “What’s in it for me? The benefits of public engagement for researchers” [PDF, 1000 KB] RCUK examine four benefits to researchers of engaging with the public through the eyes of researchers themselves.  In a series of case studies, the document coniders career inspiration, raising your profile, developing skills and enhancing your research.

It’s that last point that particularly grabbed my attention when reading through the document, as it gets back to the heart of response I found from that US researcher to the idea of the “public” actually having an influence on research.

This section of the report consists of twelve accounts where researchers have benefited from engaging with people a long way removed from the lab.  They span medical research to environmental research to astronomy.  And the unifying factor – research that is enriched and better-informed by talking with and listening to others.  Take this quote from Dr David Chadwick for instance from North Wyke Research. Talking about engaging people as part of his work studying how the management of livestock and their manures affect water quality, David said

“It vastly changed networking opportunities, bringing different experts together, and has been the most enjoyable project in my career to date”

Or this from Dr Paul Curzon at the University of London on engaging with the public on research into topics related to human error:

“The data obtained from this was used in a publication which won a best paper prize, and has opened up a novel research methodology.”

The accounts are anecdotal.  But nevertheless they attest to the power of opening up research to people who are affected by it, interested in it and have something to offer to it – given half the chance.

The UK has been bitten by the failures to engage people on science effectively in the past, and is learning rapidly from past mistakes.  The result is a strong strategy that changes the dynamic between researchers and the public; gives more people than ever before the opportunity to be active partners in science rather than passive observers; and adds considerable value to research and innovation.  Rather than retreating into the attitude of “that sounds like a really bad idea,” Britain is developing a “technology ratchet” that could give it a valuable edge over the coming years.

As a Brit, that gives me a sense of pride in the country – we seem to have got this one right, or at least seem to be on the right path.  But as a Brit living in the US, I can’t help thinking “what on earth has gone wrong on this side of the Atlantic?”  Why is is that, while the UK is developing strategies to make more people an integral part of the science endeavor, the US is still plagued by an attitude that the public should be seen and not heard.

I suspect it’s because the momentum of the vast US science and technology enterprise has carried it forward despite a growing need to rethink the relationship between science and society.  But that momentum won’t last for ever.  And when it runs out, how will the US go about getting science back on track?

I don’t know the answer to that one.  But at least they will have an excellent role model a mere pond-hop away come the crunch 🙂

Andrew Maynard