A Communication Lacking in Engagement

By Sam Illingworth

Last week the Science and Technology Committee (STC) published their report on Science communication and engagement, which came after a prolonged Science communication inquiry. This inquiry considered many written pieces of evidence from experts, either in written form or via invited oral testimony. I submitted several pieces of evidence to this inquiry, and having now read the report there are a few key issues that I believe need addressing.

 

Public Engagement?

When talking about the engagement of the public with science I believe that the report makes a fundamental error in citing the NERC (National Environmental Research Council) ‘Name Our Ship’ campaign as “a case study of how to engage with a wide audience.”

‘Name Our Ship’ will be familiar to many readers as the online campaign to name the NERC’s new research ship. The system was set up so that participants could suggest a name and then vote for other names that had previously been suggested. Thanks to a viral social media campaign the name that the public suggested was ‘Boaty McBoatface’. Whilst perfectly demonstrative of the dry British sense of wit, this was hardly the name that NERC had been after, and so after a government debate the ship was instead christened the RRS (Royal Research Ship) David Attenborough, with the ship’s remotely operated submarines given the Boaty McBoatface moniker. The STC report claims that this was “an elegant solution” by the government and that the whole affair was “An illustration of how engaged the public can be in science matters.” If they really believe that this is the case then the future for genuine public engagement with science looks bleak indeed. That a government report could honestly think that this campaign was anything other than a social media meme is beyond me, whilst riding roughshod over the voice of the nation is hardly a precedent for meaningful engagement! I worry that the government’s handling of this campaign, and their subsequent reflection on it, offers an unsettling insight into their comprehension of genuine engagement between scientists and the public.

 

Open Science?

With regards to the role of the media in communicating science, the STC report makes all the right noises in mentioning the danger of false balance (i.e. the issue that the media tend to always present two sides to an argument even when one of them is potentially extreme, dangerous, and in the minority), citing Climate Change as a particularly dangerous precedent. However, the report has too much of a focus on the BBC (no doubt to tick certain boxes in the legislature), and once again it doesn’t go much beyond stating the seemingly obvious; providing little to no advice as to how it will go about making these improvements. In some instances, it is also contradictory. For whilst a reduction in the embargo period of certain journals would indeed be a good thing, would the extra time that this gave science journalists to fact check improve the public’s perception of science? After all, as the STC report (quoting a 2014 Ipsos MORI survey on Public Attitudes to Science) itself point out, only 28% of the public believe that science journalists “check the reliability of scientific research scientific research findings before they write about them.” This is not to have a go at science journalists, but rather highlights the lack of logic in one of the very few concrete suggestions that the report makes.

Instead of concentrating on embargo periods the STC report should have better considered the role that Open Science must play in making scientific research more accessible to all. Open Science does not just mean Open Access, but instead demands that the whole process of scientific inquiry is made more freely available and accessible to all. In fact, concentrating solely on Open Access can be dangerous, as pointed out in the STC report by Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication at University of Hull, who states that:

“Much of the material published in open access journals [ … ] is no more accessible by a lay audience than when it was behind pay walls. Scientific publications are too often written in dry jargon filled prose which makes them incomprehensible by a lay person.”

Some of my own research aims to address this very issue, with a recent study suggesting that poetry may offer an alternative to the traditional scientific abstract.

 

Impact?

When talking about science and policy-making, the STC report goes into much greater detail about how the public can be meaningfully engaged, citing the excellent work of Sciencewise and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and rightly recommending that these two organisations continue to benefit from government funding and support. However, the STC report needs to acknowledge that generating science policy is not the only meaningful form of engagement. The report quotes Lord Stern’s 2016 review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), in which he states that:

“Guidance on the REF should make it clear that ‘impact’ case studies should not be narrowly interpreted”

It is encouraging that the STC report supports these views; however, I believe that it is vital that they (and the REF) do not solely weight the importance of case studies according to their impact on government policy. Whilst public engagement and dialogue is vital for such policy-making, it is also (as Lord Stern points out) vital in other areas as well, not least in helping scientists to better understand the public that will ultimately benefit (or not) from the research that they are undertaking. As pointed out by the NCCPE, the REF panels of assessment also need to be vigilant to ensure that public engagement is not simply done as a box-ticking exercise for selfish reasons. Whilst this was mentioned in the STC report, there was no clear guidance as to how such engagement might be achieved, nor any definition of what meaningful impact might be.

Overall I think that the STC report is a missed opportunity. In contrast to previous STC reports on the nature of science communication it doesn’t really appear to be challenging the status quo. The few recommendations that it does make either barely scratch the surface of more prominent underlying issues or else highlight an understanding of engagement that is at best naïve or at worst negligent. However, this is not to suggest that there is not excellent public engagement going on across the UK. One need only read and watch the evidence requested by this report to see examples of meaningful and effective public engagement. I just wish that this report had done more to emphasise how such best practice could be encouraged, rewarded, and ultimately supported by the UK Government.

 

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