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February 17, 2011

A People's Panel? No thanks. We're bigger than that

I think we should talk about science policy more. By 'we' I don’t just mean people who read blogs like this. I mean everyone.

So I was interested to see the Science Museum’s Dana Centre were hosting an event last week entitled Whose Science? The blurb promised questions like ‘Who should decide which direction research takes us and what takes priority?’ and ‘Do scientists and politicians know best, or should the public help decide?’. Tom Wakford trailed his talk with a post on Research Blogs.

Turned out it was a sort of soft launch for a new initiative from the government’s experts on public engagement, Science Wise: a ‘People’s Panel’ for science.

This idea worries me, and not just because the name's a bit corny. It worries me because I don’t want public engagement with science done by a committee. It’s just too neat, too restrictive, too easily manipulated and too easily ignored. It decries the complexity, the detail and simple serendipity that brings a member of ‘the public’ into contact with an area of science.

Who will sit on this panel and why? How will stop it from being taken over with those with an axe to grind (insert your own personal science policy bogyman here). Surely the whole of science is rather a big area for one panel? Surely it’ll be easily ignored, or even manipulated as a legitimating strategy for ignoring an expert’s advice? Surely this is all just a bit cover for government doing what it wants?

I heard all these questions raised at the Dana event, but I didn’t hear any answers. Maybe Science Wise have a more developed idea than a simple panel. The pseudo-public pseudo-debate set-up of a Dana event didn't exactly help explain things. If they do have good ideas, I’m yet to see them.

The thing that worries me most is this: what about the person who doesn’t bother much about science policy. They don’t even hear about the People’s Panel, let alone bother to join. Why should they? We’re all busy people. But then something changes in their life. It doesn't matter what, it could be almost anything. Suddenly, they do care. Not about the whole of science, but about some very specific detail. Suddenly, they care an awful lot. Moreover, their weird little new personal situation means they have something useful to contribute. Now they want to be involved, but their knowledge and passion can’t be represented directly because 'people’ like them are supposed to exist through a panel.

We already have people’s panel of sorts. They are called MPs. Use them. Moreover, use their connections to their constituents. Encourage people to lobby their MPs on science policy issues, publicly embarrass MPs who do not take science policy seriously and bug parties into putting statements about science in their manifestos. We should also make more of the mass media. As Paul Nurse said at last week’s Royal Society Scientists Meet the Media party, the press help open up public dialogue. Follow, for example, Imran Khan’s suggestion that scientists and engineers who sit on government advisory committees should be given independent press officers: a bit of basic support to help make their findings public and, crucially, help inspire a bit of informed public debate. I also think public consultations could be made more public and accessible too.

We should be imaginative about what we mean by ‘media’ here, and work with museums, festivals and Café Scientifique, as well as (or perhaps especially) the more politically orientated projects like Skeptics in the Pub and Green Drinks. We should develop projects that involve experts other than just academics in peer review. We should invest in work that takes debates about science or technology out into spaces like supermarkets, schools or libraries, online, in schools and in the workplace, as well as initiatives which open up scientific work through citizen science, research blogging or a simple open day at a lab.

We need more public engagement with science, and for science to engage more with the public too. We also need to build better relationships between scientists and politicians, and this needs to be done in public, so more people can eavesdrop and join in on the debate. We need to have conversations about science policy when new issues pop up, and to build relationships early on, before we even realise problems have arisen. We need a diversity of conversations, in a diversity of contexts, involving a diversity of people. As a recent pamphlet from the New Economics Foundation puts it: tackle big issues by linking small conversations.

At one point the Science Wise representative referred to the Big Society. The audience groaned, but that’s the last of her problems. A People’s Panel isn’t ‘Big Society’. Its main problem is that it’s way, way too small.

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Comments

Absolutely. (and I'd say more but I need to run)

Hi Alice,

"We should be imaginative about what we mean by ‘media’ here, and work with museums, festivals and Café Scientifique, as well as (or perhaps especially) the more politically orientated projects like Skeptics in the Pub and Green Drinks."

Just thought I'd flag-up a project that Sciencewise, Science in Society at the British Science Association and Dialogue By Design are running to (pretty much) exactly this end.

It's called 'SciDemocracy' (working title!) and we're experimenting with ways of gathering the opinion of publics that visit science events linked to potentially controversial topics.

The pilot's looking at 'Human Development' and we've already partnered up with SitP and café sci as well as other different kinds of debates and talks.

The underlying philosophy is that there's so much debate and opinion floating around at these events that's not being captured, why not do something about it rather than relying solely on the large-scale 'public dialogue'-style activities. This opinion can then be condensed down and (potentially) form something like a POST-note for policy makers. Science in the Big Society if you will ;-)

Thanks for writing such an interesting and thoughtful take on the event (as usual!) and hope the above is of interest!

Thanks Toby, yes I did see that (I also remember working on similar for the BA nearly 10 years ago...)

Ooh! Which project was that? Sounds interesting!

Hi Alice

An interesting take on the Sciencewise event and the wider challenges around public engagement.

Whilst agreeing with much of your article, I must clarify that this event was in no way any sort of a launch of a ‘public panel’. If that is how it came across that was never our intention.

As you say - ‘We need more public engagement with science, and for science to engage more with the public too. We also need to build better relationships between scientists and politicians, and this needs to be done in public, so more people can eavesdrop and join in on the debate. We need to have conversations about science policy when new issues pop up, and to build relationships early on, before we even realise problems have arisen. We need a diversity of conversations, in a diversity of contexts, involving a diversity of people.’

We at Sciencewise are creating these opportunities for more public engagement – and most importantly in my view, more opportunities for the public to contribute to the development of policy. We support an increasingly wide range of types of public dialogue activity, and as Toby Shannon has already commented, we are investigating how to feed the views of the public from science events into policy making. But capturing information which is useful to policy makers from the diverse range of events is certainly a challenge. The advantage of dialogue exercises, or panels, is the ease with which they can be tailored so their output can be captured to inform policy development.

Many organisations have successfully run panels to inform the development of policy. Through the internet potentially large numbers of members of the public can contribute their views. Sometimes we have to be able to have these conversations with the public in a relatively short timescale, to ensure that the knowledge can contribute to the development of policy. We also have to ensure that any such public engagement is delivered as cost effectively as possible. Against this background, we’re initiating discussion around the concept of ‘a public panel’, to see if this could be a useful addition to the range of public engagement going on.

But we have to be very careful in the title. Each person will have a view as to what is a ‘public panel’, this will be based on their own experiences. Is it 50, 100 people, who are they, how are they recruited, do they meet, how do they contribute their views, how do they get informed, how does the policy maker participate in the conversation, how is the view from the public assessed, how do we know who they are and how does it add value to those involved in policy making Sciencewise is not coming with any preconceived views on either whether it is a good idea or what it should look like. Hence the meeting at the Dana Centre to start to explore wider views. I don’t think anyone at Sciencewise would propose making people ineligible to be on a panel as soon as their personal circumstances give them an interest. Our focus is on engaging a full range of people.

I would like to thank everyone that participated at the event. Their views have highlighted not only the potential benefits but as you have drawn out in the article, the issues that have to be addressed. These are challenging questions, but the value of the prize is too great not to try, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with the aim of investigating every possible means to bring about a greater level of public involvement in science and technology policy development.

Thanks for your comment Alan, but I still don't see any answers. Or, really, a sense of what you see this 'great prize' to be (there are lots of things it could be... I just want some specifics, or at least some frame from which to debate).

I say this having not only read your comment but the blogpost that has (finally) been posted about the event on the Science Wise site.

"We should develop projects that involve experts other than just academics in peer review"

That sounds good, but it would have tbe effect of stifling most basic research. Suppose, for example, that I want to develop maximum likelihood estimates that would allow inferences about mechanisms to be made from recordings of single ion channel activity. There are probably fewer that a dozen people in the world who can follow the technical details of such a project. One answer would be to say that it I can't put into words that anyone can understand why I think it's important, then it shouldn't be funded. I could try of course, but such explanations inevitably contain a high level of bullshit, and it's already a major problem of the Research Councils that, rather than discouraging bullshitting. they make it compulsory.

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