Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Association for the Advancement of Science


  1.  The British Association (the BA) has for many years been at the forefront of science communication in the UK. Within the multiplicity of bodies now engaged in the public communication of science the BA is unique. It is the only nation-wide organisation, with a comprehensive multi-disciplinary base and with an open membership that is wholly dedicated to improving public awareness and appreciation of science. Its particular roles are to:

    —  organise exemplary programmes and activities locally, regionally and nationally, and

    —  provide a focal point for the community of those who communicate science particularly in non-formal setting.

  2.  The BA welcomes the opportunity to reflect on the impact of the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential. Our comments refer, in particular, to the campaign to spread understanding of science among school children and the public that was a key plank of the White Paper.

  3.  Together with the Royal Society's 1985 Bodmer report on the public understanding of science, the 1993 White Paper has been a landmark document in science communication in the UK. By recognising the importance of improving awareness and appreciation of science and technology, ensuring that the Research Councils had a responsibility to promote it, and allocating resources to support appropriate initiatives, Realising Our Potential made a significant and lasting impact that should not be underestimated.


  4.The BA has been one of the principal beneficiaries of the resulting OST support for this area of work. Already recognised within the 1993 White Paper for activities such as its annual festival of science and Talking Science+, the range of the BA's work has expanded significantly in the subsequent years. In particular it has:

    —  established the National Science Week

    —  assumed responsibility for AlphaGalileo, the media resource service for European science, engineering and technology

    —  encouraged young people to become involved in Foresight-related activities

    —  been the catalyst for creating SPARKS, the South Kensington millennium festival of arts and sciences

  5.  Realising Our Potential led directly to the BA proposing the idea of the National Science Week, an initiative that the OST has consistently supported since its inception. Co-ordinated by the BA, the week now involves hundreds of organisations across the UK staging events and activities which last year provided some 8,000 visitor opportunities and attracted over 1.2 million participants. Widespread media interest multiplies the audience many times.

  6.  AlphaGalileo is an internet press service designed to provide journalists with a "one stop shop" for access to scientific news stories from across Europe. Initiated by PPARC, it was passed to the British Association in 1998 and now has partners in six other European countries.

  7.  The BA has been active in encouraging young people to become involved in Foresight-related activities. Its Vision for the Future programme has encouraged young people to think how science and technology might be harnessed to create the sort of society they want. An on-line version of the initiative is soon to be launched. Visions events have focused on topics such as transport, food, water and energy supplies.

  8.  The decision to hold the BA's annual festival for 2000 in London inspired the development of creating SPARKS, the South Kensington millennium festival of the arts and sciences. Although not the millennium exhibition proposed in the White Paper, this month-long festival has a much greater compass, involving the Victoria & Albert, Natural History and Science Museums; Imperial College and the Royal Colleges of Art and Music; the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Albert Hall.

  9.  Most recently the BA has taken over CREST awards, which were singled out for government support in the 1993 White Paper. The BA now has schemes to stimulate interest and involvement in science and engineering among young people from 5-18.

The Wider Impact of Realising Our Potential

  10.  The impact of the 1993 White Paper on science communication has been widespread. One very positive outcome is the enthusiastic support given to initiatives by successive Ministers of science.

  11.  Recently the OST has initiated survey work to help provide a better understanding of the background, behaviour and attitudes of the public. This is a service to the whole of the science communication community and is most welcome.

  12.  The greater involvement of Research Councils in this area of work is also welcome. Most Councils have established public understanding grant schemes and these have had a positive effect in stimulating their research grant-holders to engage in public communication activities. Similarly, a number of Councils now ask their grant holders to report on such activities. In our view it is important that the Councils work closely together in this area both to avoid duplication and to avoid confusion among the public and in schools where science tends to be perceived in its entirety rather than in the particular chunks represented by the areas of responsibility of the various Councils.

  13.  Since the White Paper, many have pinpointed the fact that in the academic world, there is little or no formal recognition for effort and achievement in public understanding of science. Many researchers, who would otherwise be willing to engage in activities with the public find themselves unable to do so because of the pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise and/or the criteria for career progression. This is an issue that needs urgent attention from the appropriate bodies.

Public Understanding of Science: the need for new directions

  14.  Feedback on the national science week and very many other activities shows positive responses from event organisers and participants alike. Public opinion surveys continue to show positive attitudes to science in the UK. Nonetheless the public discussion on issues like GM foods and crops has not been well-informed, and the quality and quantity of young people being attracted into science courses and careers remains disappointing. The same surveys that show positive attitudes to science also show a diminution of trust in science and scientists, especially those from backgrounds that are not perceived to be independent, eg government and industry. This suggests not that there should be a diminution in the effort put into science communication but that there should be some re-focusing and redirection.

  15.  The recent report on the inquiry into Science and Society by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology provides considerable insight in this area and is greatly welcomed by the BA. The concepts of dialogue and transparency are ones that the BA fully endorses. The BA is already committed to making activities, such as its annual festival, more focused on discussion and debate and is planning a new headquarters building at the Science Museum with purpose-built facilities for public discussion. A regular programme of discussions on topical scientific issues has also been established under the banner of the BA magazine, Science and Public Affairs.

  16.  The BA also supports the need for science at school better to cater for those young people—the vast majority—who will not progress into scientific careers but who will nonetheless be citizens in a society where advances in science and technology will impinge on almost every aspect of life.

A Strategy for Science

  17.  Science communication and science education are issues that must be addressed if any overall strategy for science is to be effective in today's world. Scientists themselves are key to success in these areas. It is easy to make the case for two-way rather than one-way communication and for a school science curriculum whose primary focus is scientific literacy but they represent major cultural shifts. Scientists are used to communicating by lecturing and writing papers. Engaging in discussion and dialogue requires different skills. It involves listening as well as speaking. Similarly a shift in the focus of the school science curriculum will only be possible if higher education institutions are prepared to accept students whose background is different from those who follow the current paths into universities.

  18.  Like science itself, the challenges, opportunities and techniques of science communication are international in scope. In many parts of the world the UK is perceived to be a world-leader in this area. The international nature of this endeavour and the UK's leading role in it should be recognised and built upon in any future strategy for science.


  19.  This memorandum has focused on only one aspect of the 1993 White Paper, namely that concerned with awareness and appreciation of science among young people and the public at large. In today's world these aspects, though small in some senses, are nonetheless crucial if science and science-based industry is to continue to have a "licence to operate" in the UK. Realising Our Potential was a landmark document in these areas. It has led to many welcome developments. But the speed of advance and change in science and the difficulty we all have to keep up has led to increasing public caution and scepticism. The effort which has been set in motion must continue but some change of focus and direction is called for. The recent House of Lords report on Science and Society provides valuable indicators of possible ways forward.

12 June 2000

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