Former chief scientific adviser Sir David King’s critique of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) illustrates the pointiest end of public engagement with science – the moments when science intersects with public policy.
Sir David has convened a shadow body, Independent SAGE, whose members are public and whose meetings have been streamed live on YouTube. He did so as the “proper” SAGE came under attack for lack of transparency over its membership and attendees and, once the list of members was published, for its alleged lack of independence from government and lack of breadth of expertise.
“Rarely,” said Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, “has a publicly constituted body been so out of touch with the public mood for accountability.” This “elite insouciance”, in Horton’s view, contrasts unfavourably with Independent SAGE.
You may feel this critique is unfair; it’s not been historic practice to release the names of SAGE members – as a sub-committee of COBRA, some of the crises it deals with have to do with national security – and goodness knows at times of crisis it’s easier to follow a well-worn path than to start questioning protocol.
But there was a clear failure to consider the implications of adopting secrecy in a crisis situation that is bringing upheaval to the whole of society and therefore directly concerns every single member of the public. Even more so one in which scientific insight is in a process of rapid development – and therefore likely to change in ways that will cause confusion if not properly explained.
It is inevitable that the public will be interested in the latest research on Covid-19, because it affects us directly, and it’s inevitable that there will be a high degree of interest in how that advice is being gathered, interpreted and its relationship with the government’s policy on tackling the pandemic.
You frequently hear critique of powerful bodies on the grounds of lack of transparency or accountability. There’s a minimum democratic threshold that demands that the public be able to find out who’s advising government and what they’re saying, with important caveats about cases that require privacy (though too cavalier an approach to designating these cases as such tends to undermine any sense of transparency and accountability).
But neither of these terms is easy to apply to science: “transparency” is hard to achieve when the subject matter is complex. Some might question whether scientists should rightly be characterised as accountable to the public rather than, say, their academic peers, or the abstract goal of the pursuit of knowledge. “Accountability”, arguably, can segue into prurient media interest in scientists’ personal lives – witness the recent case of Neil Ferguson’s resignation from SAGE – or subject scientists to attacks and abuse on social media, something the members of Independent SAGE have already had to contend with.
The case of Independent SAGE raises a third criteria: that of “communicativeness”. Sir David has explained the decision to live stream meetings in part to showcase the process of peer review and debate among experts. The messiness and contingency of science at the cutting edge and across disciplines is a complicating factor in effective communications – few opportunities for simple key messages. So, though transparency, accountability and communicativeness may be ostensibly desirable when science informs policy, it’s much more easily said than done.
The turn to public engagement
These are not, of course, new problems. Though the scale and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is unusual, it’s not the first public health crisis that has called into question how science informs policy.
As it happens, 2020 marks twenty years since the House of Lords science and technology committee published its highly noteworthy Science and Society report, in February 2000.
The Lords committee reports a crisis of confidence in science at the turn of the millenium, prompted by failures in the government’s handling of BSE in cattle, and nervousness about the impact of developing technologies in biotech (Dolly the cloned sheep, GM food), and computing (the Internet).
Though public interest in science was high, trust in science and scientists – especially those connected with government or industry – was low. Academic scientists, then, as now, tended to command the highest comparative levels of trust.
The solution, argued the report, was an unambiguous shift from the promotion of “public understanding of science” with its implication of powerful scientific experts explaining complex issues to a passive public, to a focus on “public engagement with science” – a more dialogic, democratic model.
Public engagement, in the report’s terms, meant moving beyond seeking feedback or keeping the public informed through running isolated engagement events such as polls, focus groups or stakeholder dialogues. Instead, the committee recommended that the UK’s scientific institutions, starting with government, should facilitate “more substantial influence and effective inputs from diverse groups.” Embracing dialogue over one-way communication, and engaging with public sentiment about science, argued the committee, would enhance public trust and secure science’s “license to practise”.
How radical was this for the time? John Durant, now Director of the MIT Museum and adjunct professor in science, technology and society programme at MIT, acted as an advisor to the House of Lords committee in 2000. In his view, the report captured and accelerated an existing trend.
“Throughout the 1990s there was a worry that there was too much emphasis on what scientists had to say, and too little on what the public might think and what they might have to say,” says John.
In John’s account, the Save British Science campaign – founded in 1986, subsequently the Campaign for Science and Engineering – had been active in promoting the idea that if the public was to support the funding of science, it might be necessary to explain to the public what scientists did and why it mattered.
But it became clear that explaining would require more than speaking loudly and slowly. Critics of what became known as the “deficit model” of work to educate the public on science became interested in the dynamics of the relationship between scientists and the public. The idea was floated that members of the public could have their own forms of expertise that could inform scientific research.
And beyond simple accountability for public funding, choices about what science merits funding, the ethical limits of scientific study and the social context and public values in which science takes place are undeniably legitimate concerns for the public and the elected politicians responsible for making decisions.
The Lords committee report, then, captured a forward-looking zeitgeist, though not without some gentle pressure being applied to some of the committee members. “To some degree,” John says, “the story of the committee is a story of advisers with the chair gradually nursing the committee towards the conclusion that major change was underway in this field. Some members, if they’d been left to it, would not have written the report that appeared – they were being shepherded to a conclusion that they would not have otherwise arrived at.”
Science in the public sphere
Twenty years on, the discipline of public engagement and the occasions for scientific communication have multiplied exponentially, with social media, podcasts and science festivals emerging alongside traditional media, books and television. But has science become more democratic in the interim?
Research funders have advocated for public engagement – fuelled in large part by the inclusion of research impact as a measure in the Research Excellence Framework. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), originally funded by HEFCE, has existed since 2008. The excellent Science Media Centre works to connect journalists to scientific expertise.
One particular outcome of the Lords Science and Society report was that more systematic efforts were made to track public attitudes to science – including by Wellcome (most recently in 2018) and as part of the British Social Attitudes Survey. UK Research and Innovation has a vision for public engagement, which includes, “more systematically involv[ing] society in discussions and debates about research and innovation priorities.”
Even so, John is sceptical. “A great deal of what was described as public engagement with science in the late noughties was indistinguishable from work in public understanding of science twenty years before. Although the field has diversified, and practice has diversified – a lot of work in this space is still operating on different kinds of deficit models in practice.”
Politics is a complicating factor – the populist turn exemplified by that Michael Gove quote tends to force scientists onto the defensive. John reflects on the implications. “A thing which none of us anticipated in the noughties was that it’s one thing to criticise an elitist attitude among scientists. It’s another thing to assume that when you get rid of that what you end up with is a better, more rational, public sphere.”
Clearly the answer is not for scientists to defer to popular opinion – the spectacle of the American President making up the science on Covid-19 as he goes along, to the extent that he is actively endangering the American public, illustrates the danger of conceding the contested ground.
But the relative lack of political and public champions of universities in recent years also speaks on some level to a failure to connect, and perhaps, too great a reliance on broadcast communication at the expense of dialogue.
People and institutions
There is, however, a distinction to draw between individuals and teams of scientists, who in lots of cases are developing more open and engaged methodological approaches (for example, co-producing health research with patients), and scientific institutions, who may not culturally have adapted as fast as some of the people who work in them.
This isn’t only about universities – the Lords committee report was critical of a “culture of governmental and institutional secrecy…which invites suspicion.” The SAGE saga suggests that some of that culture still pertains, in government at least.
“Covid-19 demonstrates that the socially sensitive science agenda is bearing fruit – scientists are stepping up in socially sensitive ways to bring powerful knowledge to bear and using their expertise wisely and humanely,” says Paul Manners, policy director at NCCPE.
But he points to social trends towards citizen, stakeholder and consumer engagement across all sectors to inform his view that universities as institutions are failing to keep pace with changing expectations in wider society. “There’s been a broader culture shift that makes engagement business-critical. It might seem harsh to say it – but higher education is lagging a long way behind other sectors, who recognise that if they don’t engage their publics they’ll go out of business.”
For Paul, it’s a question of institutional strategy – and adopting an ethos of public engagement across all the institution’s activities: “It doesn’t make sense to look at public engagement on its own, in its own bubble. There’s a lot of thinking and capacity building work going on to improve engagement with policymakers, the public sector, with business and civil society. There’s a real focus now on building better, more respectful partnerships and collaborations – and making sure that the interests and experience of citizens are considered at the same time. We’re getting better at understanding how to do that kind of joined-up work well.”
By contrast, for John, it comes down to the attitudes of scientists. “It’s easy to ghettoise your science, “ he says. “When you get outside the ghetto it’s very important how experts conduct themselves. If they are at all prone to being disdainful or dismissive, or inclined to patronise the audiences they’re working with, what they do will in all likelihood be counterproductive. We need scientists who are confident enough and concerned enough to be open and be happy to talk to anyone openly about what they know and how it might be helpful, and what they don’t know.”
Reflecting on the SAGE debate, it seems that technical proficiency in achieving standards of transparency, accountability and communicativeness isn’t necessarily enough. To sustain public trust and confidence – the source of science’s “license to practice” – scientists, scientific institutions, and government, need to have sufficient trust in the public to believe we can handle complex information. And trust is never a given – it is only created through engagement and dialogue.