Science promotion
Science promotion

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Science promotion

1 Starting to investigate science promotion

1.1 The political climate

You may have read a lot about recent political moves to involve the public in science policy making. Some commentators, such as Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne, are in favour of it, while others, such as Lewis Wolpert or Richard Dawkins, are circumspect or even hostile to involving the public in science. However, it is generally agreed that increasing public engagement with science is important and worthwhile, with tangible societal value (in other words it has value for experts, policy makers and other stakeholders, as well as the general public).

The UK Government’s White Paper called ‘Excellence and Opportunity’ (written in response to the seminal House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology’s Third Report in 2000) sums up the main argument for greater public engagement, when it says:

science is too important to be left only to scientists ... When science raises profound ethical and social issues, the whole of society needs to take part in the debate.

(Office of Science and Technology, 2000, p. 27)

This excerpt implies that greater public engagement in scientific dialogue is needed: it is important for people not otherwise involved to ‘take part in the debate’. It is possible to unpack this statement and ask whether their Lordships really mean the ‘whole’ of society should take part, and whether only ‘profound social and ethical issues’ should be debated – with presumably some other issues off limits. These points aside, however, the overall message is that there is support within political circles for an increased public engagement with science. Of course, what is less certain is the extent to which a commitment to the principle of public engagement is shared by those scientists and policy makers at the sharp end of public involvement – there can be a world of difference between intended policy and actual practice!

The agenda of public engagement extends beyond the UK, and later in this course we will look at how it is articulated within the EU and elsewhere. Indeed, the EU influence is particularly important to the UK, since it obliges the UK Government to an extra layer of commitment – they need to realise both home-grown and pan-European aspirations. Resonant of the House of Lords’ sentiments quoted above, the 2002 EU Science and Society Action Plan states that:

If scientific and technological progress is to meet the needs of Europe's citizens and regain their support, they will need to have information that is understandable and of a high quality, as well as ready access to this specific culture.

(EU Science and Society Action Plan, 2002, Section 1.1)

It is worth reflecting on what this might mean in practice. Assuming that the phrase ‘ready access to this specific culture’ means ‘ready access to scientific culture’, then the EU Science and Society Action Plan is asking for a higher level of public involvement. Later parts of this course will look at whether these aspirations encourage a wide-ranging approach and thus create new opportunities for public engagement and science outreach. It is perhaps worth noting that literature on this subject is often ambivalent about distinguishing between ‘access’, ‘engagement’ and ‘outreach’, and uses the terms interchangeably. In short, these terms indicate an enhanced relationship between science and society, and not the belief that people should, for example, be able to walk off the streets and into a laboratory or access raw scientific data at will.

Whilst science can be accessed through means such as formal education or media coverage, this course will look at the extent to which it is done via science promotion events. It is a huge task to consider all the different forms of science outreach in the UK, so this course will consider some particular ones. Specifically, it will concentrate on events that people need to actively seek out and then apply themselves to. In other words, it will not look at the popularisation of science through books, magazines or the internet, or at how the mass media might be used to promote science. Brief mention will be made of science museums and centres (see, for example, Reading 2), many of which engage in science promotion activities, but these will not be discussed in detail because they are established institutions and not commissioned events.

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