Another quick bit of news to catch up on concerns the publication (on May 2nd) of a study by Ipsos MORI into Public Attitudes to Science. I have a special interest in this study because in fact I took part in it, in the role of a sort of science observer at the session held in Cardiff, which I blogged about in November 2010.
The study was not based on a particularly large sample – only 2103 people – but the results are quite interesting (and perhaps surprising). You can download the full report here, including a mention of yours truly on page 121, but it’s worth mentioning a few of the headline results for those of you who haven’t the energy to read the entire document. For example,
- 82% thought that “science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest”
- 88% thought that scientists “make a valuable contribution to society”
- 82% thought that scientists “want to make life better for the average person”
On the other hand
- 51% thought they see and hear too little information about science
- 56% do not feel well informed about scientific research and developments
- 66% think that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.
These last three numbers compare unfavourably with corresponding figures from an earlier survey done in 2008. I’m not sure whether the results are surprising or not, but the results were considered sufficiently important for a Press Release from the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS) along with a response from RCUK which make interesting reading. Minister David Willetts is quoted as saying
Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital to economic growth. It’s encouraging that people are increasingly interested in research and new developments. However, more disappointingly, at the same time they feel less informed. People want more information and to engage with these subjects in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s a very clear message which Government has an important role in responding to.
The RCUK statement includes the following
RCUK is committed to working with researchers to encourage them to engage the public with their work. Along with the other UK funders of research, RCUK has underlined this commitment by putting in place the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. The Concordat aims to create a greater focus on and help embed public engagement with research across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors. By establishing an ongoing dialogue between the research community and the public, society can benefit more fully from the outputs of research. A copy of the Concordat is available here.
While it’s good to see a high-level endorsement of the importance of outreach and public engagement, it remains to be seen how well this message propagates to individual departments and research groups, not all of which take these activities as seriously as they should in terms of rewarding staff taking part in them.
I also think that part of the difficulty lies not with scientists, but with the mass media who seem reluctant to accept that there is a significant demand for in-depth science coverage, e.g. on television.