Taking Science to the Street

The Policy team were rather spoilt yesterday, as one of us also got to attend a second discussion meeting, this one organised by the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee, who were discussing ‘Taking Science to the Street’.

Some of the most interesting contributions came from Dr. Daniel Glaser, who is the Head of Special Projects in the Public Engagement Department of the Wellcome Trust. He started by differentiating between ‘public understanding of science’, which is the term most often used in the US for his type of work, and the British term ‘public engagement’. He argued that the latter term is more nuanced, reflecting a more positive attitude towards the general public as being both willing and able to get involved with guiding the direction of scientific research. He argued that ‘public understanding’ meanwhile saw its role more as one of explaining scientific results to a public who lack scientific knowledge. Whilst he conceded that many people who apply for public engagement grants from the Wellcome Trust intended to do old-fashioned public understanding, he pointed towards such projects as Cafe Scientifique as a good example of engaging the public.

He proceeded to argue that Wellcome Trust surveying had shown that the public were in fact very keen on scientific information and getting more of it, and that they were also quite keen on consultations (though here their keeness depended upon what importance was going to be attached to the results of the consultation). One issue with this however is that many scientists do not trust what the public think and say about science, and view their input and beliefs as largely irrelevant. He therefore concluded that there is a power struggle going on at the moment: scientists who do not want to open up their research to public involvement on the one side, faced on the other side by a public who are keen to get involved and have a say both in what research is done and how scientists go about doing it.