Open Day at Ivory Towers? Paul Wymer

Paul Wymer


The Wellcome Trust recently commissioned the Office for Public Management to explore the future relationship between science and the public, to help identify future activities in this area. Given the Trust’s sphere of influence, the nature of this exercise raises questions about efforts in general to “sell science” to the public.


The groundwork for the analysis has already been done. A workshop at the Trust with a group of experts from a wide range of key groups and organizations involved a complex process leading to alternative scenarios of what the future relationship might be like. Members of the public understanding of science cartel are currently invited to comment. The amended scenarios will then be the basis for “an open behavioural simulation of the new relationships between science and the public.”


Dr Mike Dexter, the present Director of the Wellcome Trust, remarked at the beginning of his tenure that he thought efforts at reaching the public were misdirected. “We’re communicating with the chattering classes but not the public,” he said. Coincidentally this was precisely the comment I made to the Trust’s senior management a few years earlier during my time as head of Communication and Education. I wasn’t particularly surprised to be ignored, but judging by the Trust’s latest approach to the problem, Dexter is suffering the same fate.


Paradoxically, the public understanding of science community has in many cases produced a wedge between the two elements it is trying to marry together. Its approach is characterised by the membership of the flagship committee COPUS (Committee on the Public Understanding of Science). This boasts various Dames, Lords and professors but perversely, the “public” barely gets a look in. While many innovative projects have been developed, the movement itself is largely self-serving, incoherent and pathologically introspective. However fashionable in academic and “edutainment” circles, public understanding of science is a largely ineffective idiom, which is perhaps why a recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report called for a new identity for this disparate sphere of activity.


Name change or not, there seems a significant chance that the plot will continue to be lost. Rather than attempting to learn from previous activities the Wellcome Trust seems intent on an increasingly detached approach to the problem. This is particularly ironic when the Trust is probably the only organisation that could, if it chose to, make a real difference to the public perception of science.


What lessons can be learned from the track record? Confusion about aims and objectives must be near the top of the list. The interpretations of “public” “understanding” and “science” have been debated interminably, but to no apparent conclusion.  As far as science is concerned, it seems unlikely that we are dealing with “the greatest, most beautiful and enlightening achievement of the human spirit” (A World of Propensities, Thoemmes, Bristol, 1990), that Karl Popper talked about: as much is acknowledged by the recent white paper on science and innovation, Excellence and Opportunity. At least this makes no bones about it; members of the public are consumers and science is simply a means of creating new products. If nothing else, this provides focus, but it would seem to take the skids from underneath the larger part of the public understanding of science movement at a stroke.


The vagueness of the implied notion of understanding is emphasised by the number of alternatives that have been suggested to replace it. While these have shown an encouraging evolution from “appreciation” and  “engagement” to “consultation” and even “dialogue” there is still an underlying tone of patronisation. This is inescapable when the public is apparently defined as anyone who is not a scientist. As perhaps one would expect of scientists, several models have been put forward as to how this amorphous mass may be classified and thereby managed. Similarly, attempts at consultation and dialogue, characterised by focus groups and citizens panels, sometimes seem analogous to experiments with laboratory animals.


Since scientists themselves are inescapably members of the public, the dichotomy seems unhelpful. Conservation groups such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth wouldn’t dream of dissociating themselves from the public. Regardless of whether one agrees with them or not, they are very much “by the people for the people”. This stance, coupled with highly competent PR and media skills, has doubtless led to the ascendancy of these groups at the expense of science in the public consciousness.


To their credit, the Wellcome Trust and other science funding agencies have assiduously pursued the media in recent years as a means of conveying science in an accessible form to the public. Scientists are encouraged to issue media releases at every opportunity and given media training to do so. This has certainly resulted in an increase in column inches for science, but given the nature of the media, stories have often been sensationalised or have concentrated on contentious issues.


In summary, the openness and transparency in science policy promised by the Government in the recent white paper will require more than cosmetic changes to the way in which science is communicated. It will require the opportunity for the public to be directly and demonstrably involved in policymaking and the way in which money is allocated. Clearly this is easier said than done, but the Wellcome Trust is probably in the best position to initiate the process. Public admittance to the funding panels would be as healthy a move for science as the admittance of women to the Long Room was for cricket. Unfortunately however, adopting this as a scenario for open behavioural simulations of the new relationships between science and the public, might be sailing a little too close to the wind.


Paul Wymer