Published on June 28, 2016

Brexit, science and public involvement

Citizens & science Sciencewise

By Roland Jackson

Roland is Senior Associate at Involve. He has extensive experience of public involvement with science and technology; as acting Head of the Science Museum, as Chief Executive of the British Science Association, and most recently as Executive Chair of Sciencewise. He will work with Involve on public involvement in policy issues concerning science and innovation.

3133347219_4c16658dd5_zAs the scientific community reels from the referendum result and its possible consequences, it may seem strange to focus on public involvement, which is so often an afterthought in science policy circles. Yet if there is one lesson from last Thursday, it is that those whose voices are not normally heard have been heard loud and clear. Michael Gove’s words, the country ‘has had enough of experts’ may be chilling, but to whom have the experts been listening?

On the whole, I doubt they’ve been listening to large numbers of the people who voted Leave. Or indeed to those who didn’t vote at all; which is a massive figure. Public involvement of those who do not engage in the Westminster-oriented political and governance processes of Research Councils, Learned Societies and the like is very difficult. To be fair to several governments, the Sciencewise programme (of which, declaring a past interest, I was recently Executive Chair) has attempted to involve diverse groups of citizens in discussing substantive issues in controversial policy involving science and technology. And there have been specific attempts to involve communities that would not normally engage, including the early Sciencewise-supported Community X-change project (though that is 6 years ago). There are many individual initiatives, often with the active involvement of a local university; such as projects on old age and loneliness with the University of Bristol at the Southville Centre.

But this work is patchy, none of these initiatives is truly systemic, and we are currently waiting to hear how Sciencewise will be re-formulated and tendered. Who, in a leadership role in the scientific community, is prepared to stand up and say that the present way of doing things is not fit for purpose? How can ‘experts’ genuinely reconnect (or connect for the first time) with the multitudes who seemingly reject expertise? The governance structures of the Research Councils, Innovate UK, Wellcome Trust, Royal Society and many others do not give one great optimism, as I have described elsewhere. The recent Nurse Review almost entirely ignored the issue, which stimulated a slight rant from me.

What would a research and innovation system look like that did genuinely engage and involve wider perspectives, that shared the definition of problems and the prioritising of proposed solutions? I expect we would find a greater emphasis on social and political challenges, not technological ones, but still an excitement about the possibilities of new technologies; there remains a great underswell of interest in science. I think the balance and emphasis of research and innovation would change, and that the social sciences, arts and humanities would need to play a stronger role. Does anyone else share that sort of scenario for post-Brexit science and innovation? That really would put Britain in a leadership role.

Image credit: Ky, Flickr Creative Commons

One Response to “Brexit, science and public involvement”

  1. June 28, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Thanks Roland, yes I agree totally. We have lots of innovative ways of engaging and mining the views of hard to reach people these days, we need to be much more thoughtful and creative in how we bring their perspectives to bear on our work.

    In an excellent blog entitled ‘The People have spoken, the bastards’, writer Ian Leslie writes ‘Democracy forces us to wear each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this’. I think that’s what we are asking of ourselves and others, not just to tick the box of dialogue, but to really consider what it is like to be in their shoes and think what they think.

    Going back to the ‘Public Engagement Triangle’ of Listening, collaborate and communicate’, there are lots of ‘listening’ projects, including the ones from ScienceWise, which are rigorous, thoughtful and have interesting and useful findings; some collaborate projects where the public, patient groups, critics are involved in creating solutions to complex problems; and quite a bit of communications, which is not the poor relation, but an essential component of generating understanding.

    But what we don’t see is, what we are calling, the ‘Cogitation’ bit. The evidence of the thought process that policy, scientists, businesses, those engaging in these listening projects, have really allowed their findings to influence what they do next. I would like to see this Cogitation much more in evidence, as a demonstration of a genuine approach to engagement where things changed based on knowledge gained from wearing each others clothes.

    I can see where some of the anti-expert feeling came from. We all know, or mainly see on the TV, ‘experts’ who are distant, with a superiority complex, and who have no intention of listening to voices who disagree with them (though it is difficult for all of us that one). A real expert listens and learns and allows the views of others to inform their approach and sometimes change it. But always uses that expertise to enlighten and open up debate, not close it down and cut it off. We are desperately in need of those, and many of them reside in Universities. Let’s let them free on the world through more funding for stakeholder involvement, Responsible Research and Innovation, whatever it gets called. This may really help.

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