Science and Public Trust

30 June 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized


Scientists and politicians don't always make good bedfellows. So I wasn't sure what to expect when, last week, a small throng of the former descended on Westminster, the home of the UK government in London.

On a bright June 24th, I and over 100 representatives from Britain's science community gathered in Portcullis House, in the shadow of a famous clock, for Parliamentary Links Day - a yearly event designed to "enhance the relationship between the country's science and engineering community" and its elected rulers.

After an opening address by (The Right Honourable) John Bercow (the designated "speaker" of the House of Commons, responsible for keeping rowdy MPs in order during sessions), we got underway. The day was divided between talks and panel discussions. The theme throughout was science and public trust.

What Crisis?

In the wake of recent scandals like "Climategate" and the MMR vaccination controversy, you might think that such a theme would have lent a downbeat tone to proceedings. We all know, after all, that public faith in science has hit a slump.

But the main message I took away was one of refreshing optimism. During the 3-hour event, one thing in particular was repeatedly drummed home: people still trust scientists.

A recent poll* suggests that, despite the poor press some scientists have attracted, as a group they remain amongst the most trusted people in Britain. Eighty-three percent of the 1000 respondents said they would generally trust a scientist to tell the truth. Only teachers (86%) and doctors (89%) scored higher.

This upbeat, however, was quickly tempered by accusations from the speakers that scientists are not doing enough with their esteem. Mark Henderson, the author and former Times Science Editor, argued that, rather than a lack of trust, the public's problem with science was one of "indifference". Poor public engagement by scientists, he said, means that often "people [aren't aware] about what science can bring to the table".

In particular, Henderson cited the "botched" public engagement surrounding a recent move by the UK's National Health Service to make patient records easier to access. At the time, the media cried Big Brother. The failure of the scientific community to muster a strong enough counterargument, he said, has endangered this "important" scheme.

Sir Mark Walport, the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor, echoed this view, using an even more contentious example - hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". The safety of this practice - which I'm sure I don't need to introduce - is being questioned in public and scientific circles alike. But poor communication between these groups, Sir Mark believes, means that the public debate which is now raging over fracking bears little resemblance to the scientific (i.e. evidence based) one.

Access All Areas

The speakers' problems with UK science communication were clearly stated. A lack of engagement by scientists broadly sums them up. (The political contingent shouldered their share of the blame, but I felt theirs to be a relatively minimal concession).

As far as solutions went, though, an empassioned speech by panel member Nicola Gulley - an Editor at the Inistitute of Physics' publishing wing - resonated most strongly with me (and apparently the rest of the audience, too, from whom it drew the only spontaneous applause aside from the podium speeches).

She called for the demystification of science. Not the discoveries, or the theories - but the scientific method itself. The rise of open access publishing had been given backhanded praise earlier in the day, by James Wilson, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, who portrayed it as a too-small step in the right direction. He and Dr Gulley both want much deeper transparency at all levels of the scientific method.

Gulley's tactic, she explained, would start by opening up the peer review process to public scrutiny. "We need to show [the public] that science is a process", she said. By doing so, she hopes, the public will be able to see failures in the system, like Climategate, as the isolated (though extremely serious) incidents they are, rather than as indicative of fundamental flaws in the scientific method itself.

One point that I left unsatisfied with was the question of how much of the onus is on scientists themselves to be the ones to communicate their craft. Perhaps it's my background, but I can't help feeling that the more time scientists spend broadcasting their work, the less they'll be able to do it well. In any case, I think there's at least an equal impetus on politicians to improve the public understanding of science, and I don't feel that even this 50/50 balance was struck during the meeting.

But then again, perhaps it comes with the territory. The eminent biologist and Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse deserved infinitely more of the audeince's attention than his time slot - just before the lunch buffet - (and let's be honest here) afforded him. One thing at least, though, stuck with me. "Science is a demanding and high calling", he told us. Perhaps the privilidge of discovery comes with a duty to tell people what you've found.

*Link to PDF (Ipsos MORI Trust Poll, 2013)



One Response to “Science and Public Trust”

  1. Gary Riccio Reply | Permalink

    "Science is a demanding and high calling" ...Perhaps the privilege of discovery comes with a duty to include people what you are doing. Scientists need not expound on the biggest (most common) problems of humanity. There is plenty of work to do together in everyone's backyard. Science in public policy needs scientists who have an executable vision and an inclusive mindset. Small wins can transform esteem into influence.

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