Sense about Science ? equipping people to make sense of science and evidence
Professor Dame Bridget Ogilvie FRS
Sense About Science in year 10
I have asked myself what the relationship between the public and science was like before SaS came into being and how SaS’s activities have improved that relationship.
Unlike many, I have always taken it as given that my fellow citizens are interested in science, especially technology arising from it, but I was aware too that most scientists were wary of getting involved in public discussions .They felt unprepared and often faced active hostility from senior colleagues and no rewards for trying. I’ve had a lifelong interest in this area and have always felt it essential not least because most research is funded from the public purse. Therefore the public has a right to know what we scientists get up to with their taxes and discuss it with us.
I met Dick Taverne in 2002 when I was on the rebound from resigning in fury as Chair of COPUS. To me, after initial success in its early years, it had become a useless body,
totally dominated by the Royal Society’s views and out of touch with the world of public engagement. COPUS could not be effective whilst it ignored the huge growth in public engagement activities beyond the Royal Society, British Association for the Advancement of Science [as it was then], and the Royal Institution which were the founding bodies. All major scientific societies and funders had become committed to and active in this area, urging their members to engage. But none were good at showing their constituents HOW to do this. They organised media workshops and passive non controversial science engagement activities as, for example, in Science Week. These activities are all well and good as they respond to the natural interest of the public in science but they do nothing to show the science community how to respond to attacks on science. What was lacking was leadership and can do knowledge to help their constituents engage when a scientific subject came under attack or became controversial. At the time I was Chair of COPUS [1998-2002], this had become a real necessity because of disasters such as BSE, foot and mouth disease, the ferocious antagonism to GM in plants, and the tragedy of the MMR/ Autism controversy . At the same time various bodies that are skilled campaigners in furthering their views in the media and especially Westminster and Whitehall but oppose or deliberately misuse scientific advances became very active.
Fortunately , and at much the same time in 2002, Dick Taverne set up SaS under the leadership of Tracey Brown and Susan Greenfield established the Science Media Centre at the RI with Fiona Fox as its Director. I believe that their advent with complementary approaches has really changed the scene to the benefit of the public and science.SMC helps scientists to put news across to journalists accurately and in a timely way which is valued by both parties. SaS has contributed to the How To in several ways.
I think that SaS is the organisation most in touch with the interests and especially the anxieties of the general public about matters in which reliable science is important. These contacts form a database which helps to inform which projects SaS will pursue , getting together with experts to produce user friendly reports. To me, this is SaS’s greatest, most important and, I hope, lasting achievement. May it continue to develop as the Go To body for people who would not dream of approaching an elite scientific body for information , which I believe is about 90% of the population.
SaS has helped the science community to campaign, usually with others, to support scientists under attack such as the sacking of Prof David Nutt from the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the libel case brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association and the recent threat to GM wheat developed by scientists at Rothampsted. SaS stands behind and gives encouraging support to help scientists under attack put their case, a most important activity. No longer does the science community have to stand, more or less paralysed, on the sidelines when anti science organisations wind up their campaigns. This is well illustrated too with the continual problem of the supporters of homeopathy and other types of alternative medicine.
Most scientific bodies urge young scientists to get involved with the communication of science. But none have been as successful as SaS. VOYS has activated early career scientists to an amazing extent and in an unique way. I love their hatred of Detox and their boldness in taking on nonsense in the retail sector.
SaS approaches its activities with imagination, as illustrated by the annual publication of nonsense about science coming from celebrities which is great fun and excellent publicity for SaS. There is nothing pompous nor intimidating about SaS!
In sum, there is no doubt in my mind that in the 10 years since Dick Taverne founded it, SaS has hugely influenced, helped and improved the relationship between scientists, science and the public.