Build Public Confidence in The Process And The Governance of Science
12 Jul, 2007 12:18 pm
Richard Wilson is the director of Involve and co-authored a recent report entitled, ?Democratic Technologies? Final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG)?. paid for by the DTI Sciencewise scheme.
What came from this report was, how we can look at the process of how research is undertaken and democratized? Are there ways of being able to shift the trajectory of the science in a way to make more accountable to a wider public interest rather than more driven by expert bodies such as research councils, government departments, large corporations, etc? What we were struck by is, almost universally, when people went through the process of being involved, that is scientists engaging citizens, they gained a lot of benefits. Citizens spoke about how they could scrutinize everyday science much more critically in terms of advertising and what might be in the press for example. There were also key findings in terms of scientists getting much more from the process than they had expected. There was evidence of scientists changing their research programs to focus on suggestions that came from the citizens. For example, when they said, ĎIf Iím going to use a sun cream for my children, how do I know itís going to be safe?í, to which they said, ĎTo be honest, we just donít know that at the moment.í. That motivated them to do some research in that specific area.
In a broader sense, one that is most important is that the key driver behind the funding of relationships between scientists and society is an attempt to build public confidence in the process and the governance of science. We found that members of the public were able to show really impressive levels of appreciation and understanding of trying to regulate the controls of rapidly emerging technologies.
To build that confidence is this something that should be done more often?
We havenít seen trust and confidence increase as a consequence, which was a key reason for undertaking the project. This whole notion of increasing trust through these processes is actually the wrong way about thinking about it. Itís more about trying to create a more mature relationship between scientists and society, which understands the challenges that one another are facing. When the reality is that you are trying to govern science and technology, itís very difficult to do.
What should be the role of the scientists in the field?
The big challenge in this for scientists is that there is still no incentive for them to do this from their perspective as a professional body. The Royal Academy of Engineers and The Royal Society, which are the two big scientific institutions in the UK have released recent reports on how public engagement between scientists and society is very important for the future of science and can enhance the research process. Despite the rhetoric there is no incentive for them to do it. There is no professional recognition or even a sort of pathway, that is, if you wanted to become a scientist communicator, to go down that route to increase their professional stature. Scientific communication and getting involved in these types of programs isnít really recognized at the moment, and that is a hurdle especially for scientists who are younger that arenít very established. We had quite a lot of well established scientists in their fifties and sixties as part of the process who were established -they had the relationships needed to get the funding and their projects off the ground- and they said they would never invest the time required for these processes.
Interview by: Christopher Le Coq
Richard Wilson is the director of Involve