Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which will discuss how scientists can reach out of the ivory tower, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they reach out to engage with the public.
James Lush works in policy and public affairs at the Biochemical Society. As part of this role he co-organises the Science Question Time (#SciQT) and Talkfest (#talkfest) event series. He is also on the committee of Stempra (the Science, technology, engineering and medicine public relations association). Previously he worked briefly in a variety of press offices, focussing on science and medicine, after receiving a degree in Anatomy from the University of Glasgow.
“Who are you cheerleading for?” asked Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at UCL at a recent Talkfest event. There are lots of examples of outreach activities which aim to enthuse the audience – usually a young assemblage – about science, and good examples of these activities will remain really important until we can stop lamenting the lack of scientific literacy in the population. From a policy perspective, the simplest logic behind such events is: if we are able to achieve scientific literacy, it will be considerably easier for policy-makers to base decisions around controversial scientific issues on the science itself, rather than on the hearts and minds of an ‘uninformed’ electorate.
Not a technocracy
The power of public opinion really hit home at March’s Voice of the Future (VOF2012) event, which provided an opportunity for scientists aged 16-35 to put their questions to an assembled panel of MPs at the House of Commons. David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science stated that:
“There are millions of people out there who value homeopathy… and if that is a democratic view… politicians are allowed to take account of that… We don’t live in a technocracy.”
Here was the Minister for Science, ‘Two Brains’ himself, defending a policy which ignores the full weight of scientific data. Whilst politicians are clearly under significant pressure to please the public – considering how regularly they must compete for the popular vote – those of a rational mind (not just those in the science community) must surely consider such rejection of evidence a step too far. Politicians, after all, are supposed to serve our best interests, not partake in a popularity contest. Unfortunately, the complete solution isn’t really as simple as generating an enthused public, as many debates are rather complex and ‘cheerleading’ isn’t necessarily the best way forward when it comes to thinking about policy.
Engaging in discussion
With the Science Question Time (SciQT) event series, which is organized in conjunction with the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Dr Alice Bell, we try to stimulate rational discussion on topical big issues and to inform opinion. Recently we’ve debated the impact agenda, the future of drugs and whether the UK should back nuclear power (this one has been listened to over 120,000 times thanks to a plug from Boing Boing). These events allow members of the academic community, policy workers, journalists and the general public to come together and inform a collective viewpoint which can influence broader opinion, whilst providing the opportunity for people to learn a little too. I should also add that you don’t have to be a wonk or a geek – we’re a broad church.
Talkfest (with the same collaborators) provides another, slightly different opportunity to engage new audiences in debate with less of a policy bent – except at our most recent event on science communication and political divides. We heard at this event that scientists and science communicators – a definition which includes a vast array of people – must come to terms with their roles as political actors. Dr Michael Brooks, for example, said that our ideologies play a huge role in how we communicate, which leads many into a trap of being biased towards a mythically inherently interesting ‘scientific ideal’. Brooks says that such cheerleading and aggrandizing of science is not helpful in communicating to policymakers or the unengaged public, as it breeds mistrust and serves to widen the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’ – whichever side of the fence you stand. Dr Felicity Mellor echoed this by defining scientists as a ‘powerful elite’ who must be challenged. Harking back to Willetts’ ‘technocracy’ comments, Mellor went further, saying that scientists are “not good at being political” and that, at the time of the ‘Nutt sack affair’, Professor Nutt was not considering the social side of politics which clearly plays a role in the formulation of policies.
Opening up a nuanced debate
If sometimes a little nervous beforehand, the panelists we approach always seem very positive about our events after their conclusion, which is a reasonable indication that we’re doing something right. In free-flowing events such as SciQT and Talkfest, the panel and audience feed off each other, which can be a tricky one to handle but makes, by my reckoning, for a much more engaging event – especially with the parallel discussions on Twitter. This gives the panel – which may feature experts from within, outside or on the fringes of front-line academia – the opportunity to reach out and respond to a nuanced debate as it develops over the course of an evening, usually until pub closing-time afterwards.
In short, it’s about opening up the debate, not ‘selling’ science. And through doing so – and engaging a wide cross-section of people – I hope that we can play our part in strengthening the voice for evidence. The popular appetite for science policy discussion does appear to be growing, with news outlets such as The Guardian leading the way. This increased scrutiny on science policy and the unwrapping of a broader debate is surely a positive thing, both allowing a wider spectrum of individuals to get involved, and also informing opinion which should improve the quality of policies in the years ahead.
You can listen to past SciQT and Talkfest events here.