The relationship between science and the public is going through a bit of a rough patch. From measles outbreaks linked to Andrew Wakefield’s claims of vaccination-induced autism to everyday bungled journalistic reports of scientific research, the ability of misreporting science to mislead the public continues to amuse and terrify scientists. In the houses of parliament, science does not seem to be a favoured discipline; just 26 out of the 650 elected MPs currently hold a Bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). The only prime minister with a scientific background is Margaret Thatcher, although her scientific and political impression on posterity bodes ill for a union of the two spheres.
The blame does not just lie with politicians and journalists; scientists are also culpable. Mistrust of journalistic reporting of science has led to derision of the press and an avoidance of press releases. In response, there is a growing view of a social awkward caste of intellectually snobbish academics that dwell in ivory towers. It’s not inaccurate. Scientists must engage with the public and the press to rebuild mutual trust and to communicate research, especially as UK science is blessed with strong governmental funding. It is the responsibility of scientists to demonstrate what that funding achieves and how it benefits the tax payers.
I keep generally referring to ‘scientists’ here, but who are the scientists that would be happy to better engage the public? The majority are over worked as it is, so is it really the job of all scientists to communicate their ideas publically? Certainly it is in social situations; every PhD student, post-doctorate or lab leader should be able to tell a five year old what they do and how it benefits those around them. Most scientists I know are dreadful at this and flounder like they’re explaining cunnilingus to the pope. But, I’m not saying scientists should start accosting people in the streets like overzealous Mormons, handing out their research papers like free bibles.
Legislation on drug use is one example where the UK government is repeatedly out of touch with research
So what do I propose scientists do about it? Nothing. Not a thing. They should continue what they do best – scientific research. Science often attracts people who have shied away from public engagement all their lives. Forcing them into schools or businesses to explain their research would be like forcing a cat into a bath. There are some things that need changing, such as more platforms of discussion between [willing] scientists and the public are required. Pint of Science is a good example that could be extended further. Arguably the most important dialogues need to be between scientists and the civil service/government. Legislation on drug use is one example where the UK government is repeatedly out of touch with research. Research and evidence should lead policy making, not be found to fit into a policy. These dialogues rely on senior scientific figures and University bodies, less so the everyday bench scientist unless they choose to be involved later in their careers. The pathway from pipetting to policymaking is under trodden, but one that would certainly influence the way science impacts society.