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Engaging with science

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THE role of science in society — and the way in which scientific advice is obtained and used by the Government — is as relevant in the veterinary field as it is in others, as experiences with bse, foot-and-mouth disease and the current debate surrounding bovine tb have demonstrated. In this context, a speech by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr John Denham, at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (rsa) in London last month was highly pertinent.

In his speech, Mr Denham drew attention to the central importance of science to society, and its impact on everyone's lives. He also highlighted its capacity to help meet current and future challenges. Referring to C. P. Snow's famous ‘two cultures’ lecture of the 1950s, he argued that it remained important to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities, and that the importance of scientific understanding, and of scientific engagement across society, had never been greater. ‘Science and society,’ he said, ‘used to be an area which was seen as a niche part of science communication. Today we have no choice but to see it as a necessary condition for British — and global — success.’

Mr Denham outlined a vision for the uk where the public is ‘truly engaged with science in the modern world’, and called on everyone with an interest — including government, teachers, scientists and the media — to help make it happen. Engaging the public meant more than presenting science as a body of facts; it meant a two-way dialogue and increasing awareness of how science works. ‘Our aim must be to have a mature relationship between the media, the public, scientists and government, so that each understands the others' ways of working and concerns,’ he said, and he urged scientists to make more effort to tell people what they were doing. One of the problems here, as the Royal Society has pointed out (see VR, July 8, 2006, vol 159, p 29), is that such efforts tend not to be rewarded in career terms, as academic success has been judged on research performance, and it is encouraging that Mr Denham's speech made reference to some initiatives aimed at redressing this.

Discussing the use of scientific advice by government, Mr Denham argued that scientific evidence and advice needed to be firmly embedded in policy making and that it was impossible to think of an area where it could not make an important contribution. However, it was important to distinguish between science and policy; while scientific evidence illuminated the debate, policymakers were responsible for the decisions.

He expressed concern that politicians and civil servants might be reluctant to take scientific advice because they feared — wrongly — that it might constrain decision making. Also, with only about 10 per cent of mps having a scientific background, they might be worried about interpreting and acting on scientific evidence. He suggested that, even where there was an appetite for an academic scientific input, it could be hard to source relevant advice, and that there was a need to increase the amount and quality of advice available to ministers and decision makers. He was concerned that there were disincentives in a system that emphasises published and peer-reviewed work over public policy advice, and that the work done by some scientists and academic departments to support policymakers was undervalued. With the Research Assessment Exercise, which plays a crucial part in determining university departmental funding, currently under review, he hoped that more could be done to ensure that their essential contribution was recognised. ‘To my mind, a scientist who produces fewer papers but produces excellent advice in the national interest on behalf of Government should not feel that they may disadvantage themselves, their research colleagues or their institution when research funds are allocated,’ he said, and he hoped to achieve a more productive engagement between universities and government to support policy making.

Mr Denham also referred to the use of science by the Civil Service, arguing that scientific considerations should be as integral to decision making as legal considerations and that, ‘In a modern Civil Service, we can no longer accept the idea of C. P. Snow's “two cultures”.’ To an extent, his remarks reflected those in an excellent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 14 months ago. Also discussing the use of science by government, this drew attention to concerns that there might have been a loss of scientific expertise in the Civil Service, and that the old Civil Service maxim that ‘Eggheads/boffins should be on tap, not on top’ might still apply (see VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 725). There was a lot of sense in Mr Denham's speech. The challenge, as always, will be in seeing that the principles are applied.

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