Public Attitudes to Science

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.

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10 Responses to “Public Attitudes to Science”

  1. […] “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 …” (more) […]

  2. “66% think that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.”

    What does that even mean? Is a scientist supposed to go around asking people for their opinion before carrying out their research? I can imagine how that would go:

    Scientist: Hello, I am a scientist studying the Kepler-11 planetary system and I would would like to know your opinion.
    Ordinary person: Uhh… Sure.
    S: Do you think an N-body simulation of interactions of smaller planets with the large planets we can see will shed any light on the process through which the visible planets reached such low eccentricities?
    O: What?
    S: Thanks for your help! I shall take your opinion into account when I perform the experiment.

  3. telescoper Says:

    The question is about scientists listening to ethical and other concerns about research and answering them without being dismissive. The taxpayer has a right to expect scientists funded by the public purse to do everything they can to engage without being either patronising or facetious.

    I’m afraid the “you’re to stupid to understand what I’m doing so I’m going to ignore you” attitude just won’t do.

    • Fair enough, I guess I understand. The way the question was phrased just seemed a bit odd to me, though I’m no scientist. I definitely agree that public outreach by scientists is a good thing, and I wish more people were educated about science research and development. But I can’t really think of any ethical concerns an ordinary person may have about, say, your research in cosmology. I can’t see how you could “listen more to what ordinary people think” about your research, though that may apply more in other fields such as medicine.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      I agree with your last sentence about mass media not accepting a need for in-depth science on TV. For too long, science has been presented as confrontational, with one side of a debate being right and the other wrong. The idea of incremental progress in a subject, or being persuaded to change an opinion when additional information is presented, is foreign to many in the media. Most scientists I know are signed up to the notion that they have to be able to explain their work to ‘the public’, and justify using taxpayers’ money to fund it. Mon x

    • telescoper Says:

      mmaluff: The question was much more general than my research, which I admit doesn’t have many ethical implications (at least none that I’m aware of). I do find quite a few ordinary people prepared to ask challenging basic questions, however, and I think they deserve every attempt to explain why we think what we do.

      Monica: my biggest phobia is the portrayal of the scientist as some sort of priest who deals in absolute certainties. The media tend to want us to talk as if this were true, but it’s not how science works at all. Sadly, some scientists go along with it but I’m glad they are outnumbered by those who are more honest or perhaps less deluded.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I enjoyed mmaluff’s satire. I also agree with Peter that “ordinary people… deserve every attempt to [have] explain[ed] why we think what we do.” There are limits, however. I have occasionally said “I welcome your interest. It is not really possible to go any further without getting mathematical, so do take a formal course.” At that point I expect that most people will realise they are not actually *that* interested, and a few others will take it up. Either way something good happens.

      I have in mind an encounter with an uneducated perpetual motion machine designer who had very good intuitive Newtonian insight, but each time I explained why his machine would not work, using the concepts of force and gravity, he came back with a refinement of the device until it was too complicated to analyse by inspection. I told him that the first integral of the same equations of motion which he understood so well guaranteed that his more complex machine could not work. He said that a first integral meant nothing to him. I could have crushed him by saying “come back with a working model” but I wanted to do my best to prevent him wasting his time, so I encouraged him to take a course. I don’t know whether he did. But I do know that he had crossed half the country to get to me because I had been willing to talk to him, and he deserved respect.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s often difficult to engage with members of the public, especially those who have their own “alternative” ideas. I get many communications in the post and via email from such people. The problem is that their stance is often that they are right and everyone else is wrong, and that the scientific establishment is a fraud that’s trying to suppress them. From the start these people are very confrontational and it’s therefore hard to really discuss anything usefully.

      I have a filing caibinet full of articles, letters and even books from such people….most of the correspondence unanswered I’m afraid.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Agreed Peter, there are plenty of people who believe that the scientific establishment is against them because their barmy idea is not taken seriously, and who point out that Einstein was not a university insider when we worked out (special) relativity. (But he had been trained in and by the system.) During my time with Australian Skeptics I was Sydney Uni physics dept’s point of contact for such people. I enjoyed it for a while but, like everybody else, eventually tired of it. I think it could be a good exercise in physics and in personnel skills for 3rd year undergrads to take some of this load…

      People like that often do not start out confontational. They likely start out polite and get a gruff rebuff from an academic who guards his time carefully. It is right to guard one’s time, but being gruff about it drives the other guy into a hole. “Since you are that interested, take a course” seems to me to be the best response in that it throws the onus on him.

      I think that there is another limit on the amount of explaining that professional scientists should do. When I read 400-page books on quantum theory written by academics for the intelligent layman (and such books are out there), I have the same thought about the intended reader: “If you are that interested, learn the maths and take a course.” Somewhere there is a limit to what can usefully be said without the mathematics. It is it not easy to say where the limit comes, but this difficulty is no argument against its existence.

      Perhaps my favourite book review was of Brian Greene’s book The Elegant Universe which expounded string theory: “This book is written at such a level and with such clarity that almost anyone can get an appreciation for string theory. The book contains one of the best explanations for laymen of special and general relativity and quantum meechanics that I have ever encountered. Even though the author is a proponent of string theory, he has presented it in such an evenhanded manner that anyone with a modicum of scientific wisdom can see that it is one of the biggest scientific boondogles in history… It is hard to criticise what you don’t understand. This book will give you the necessary understanding… Let us hope that this excellent book is the beginning of the end of string theory.”

      Anton

  4. Hi Peter. I’m one of the researchers at Ipsos MORI that worked on this study. Thanks for blogging about the work and encouraging public debate.

    BIS have also been running a blog about the study, which you can read here: http://discuss.bis.gov.uk/pas11/. Sarah Castell and I will be discussing the findings at the British Science Association’s Science Communications Conference on 27 May in London, alongside Marilyn Booth from BIS.

    Re the comments about the wording of some of the statements in the survey (e.g. “scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think”), these are things general public participants have said about scientists in workshops done in previous studies, so it’s interesting to take these qualitative statements and see how many people agree/disagree in a quantitative nationwide survey. Interestingly, as part of the 2011 research, we interviewed some participants by video in some of our focus groups in London about this issue, and they expressed similar ideas, wanting scientists to talk to the public more – you can see the video here: http://www.youtube.com/user/bisgovuk#p/a/u/0/DW61a3ni4Xc.

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