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Selling science

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‘SCIENTISTS “too busy” for pupils’ was the headline bbc News put on a news story on its website last week describing a report on communicating science to the public that had just been published by the Royal Society. The Royal Society's report* discussed the results of a survey that had been undertaken to assess factors affecting such communication by scientists and engineers, which had found, the bbc reported, that scientists did not have time to go into schools to encourage students to take up sciences because of the pressure they were under to publish the results of their research.

That finding is worrying, and not just because of what it says about the pressures on researchers. It is recognised, from the Government down, that Britain's future competitiveness depends on science and innovation, which in turn depend on recruiting more people into science. Recruitment is proving difficult, however, particularly in subjects like physics and chemistry, as the well-publicised closures of some university departments have demonstrated. If scientists themselves are not in a position to inspire pupils with the excitement and importance of their subjects, then who else will? Science may not engage the public and the media to quite the same extent as, say, tv's Big Brother or the shopping habits of the wives and girlfriends of the England football team, but it remains important nevertheless. The problem of recruitment into science is an issue not just in the disciplines affected but for those (like veterinary medicine) that are science-based and, indeed, for society as a whole. There is a need to encourage more people to take an interest in and take up science, and this is a process in which everyone should be involved.

The Royal Society is, of course, aware of all this, which is one of the reasons it commissioned the survey in the first place. The work was funded under its ‘Science in Society’ programme, which aims to engage the public and other non-scientists in science. Specific aims of the study were to establish the relative importance of science communication to uk researchers, examine the amount and type of communication carried out, and explore factors facilitating or inhibiting such communication. It involved a web-based survey of nearly 1500 research scientists in higher education institutes, together with more detailed interviews with a cross-section of respondents.

Among the findings were that scientists differed in their views on what was meant by engaging the public in science, and also on the reasons for doing so. Almost three-quarters of the respondents indicated that they had undertaken some form of public engagement activity in the past 12 months, but the types and levels of activity differed, with 26 per cent reporting no activity, 63 per cent reporting low to medium activity, and 11 per cent high activity. Sixty-four per cent of respondents said that the need to spend more time on research was the main thing stopping them getting more involved in communicating with the public. Disturbingly, 20 per cent agreed that scientists who engaged with the public were less well regarded by other scientists, and a number of those taking part in the interviews highlighted that such activity was seen by their peers as being bad for their careers. A message emerged that public engagement ‘was done by those who were “not good enough” for an academic career’; it was seen as a ‘light’ or ‘fluffy’ activity that ‘risked reinforcing negative stereotypes for women who might be involved’.

If that is true, it points to a cultural problem, or perhaps a structural problem, which the scientific community urgently needs to address. The Royal Society's study highlighted the perceived importance of scientific publications and bringing in research funding to developing a successful scientific career, with the Research Assessment Exercise (rae) being cited as ‘a key driver influencing the academic community in the uk and as having a negative influence on science communication and, more broadly, on all non-research activities, such as teaching’. Communicating science to the public, the Royal Society reports, ‘was viewed as “altruistic” and not a central part of academic life’.

The report makes a number of recommendations, suggesting, for example, that the definitions and objectives of engaging the public need to be more clearly defined, and that more should be done to enable young scientists to get involved. It further suggests that institutions and funding bodies need to provide better support for scientists engaging the public, and that ‘significant departmental rewards’ should be introduced, which give proper recognition of the benefits. The Government recently announced that the next rae, to be conducted in 2008, will be the last, and that it will be replaced by a ‘metrics-based’ system, the nature of which has still to be defined (VR, April 1, 2006, vol 158, p 421). It would be nice to think that it was possible to come up with a system that recognised the importance of engaging the public in science and which, at departmental and institutional level, allowed recognition of the fact that there is more to being a successful academic scientist than an ability to pull in research funds. The Government, like the Royal Society, has been emphasising the importance of selling science to the public for some time now. There is a need to create an environment in which this can happen, or there is a danger that science will be sold short.


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