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STS Department responds to the DIUS Science and Society Consultation

By ucapslo, on 17 October 2008

The following response has been submitted to the Science and Society consultation run by the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills by members of the STS Department.


Response to Consultation document, ‘A Vision for Science and Society’, July 2008

Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL

The Science & Technology Studies Department at University College London is a centre of expertise and research in issues of science and society. As members of this department, we read with interest the consultation document. We share the judgment of many of our colleagues, national and international[1], that the current document ‘significantly misrepresents the character and underlying relations between science and society’. We would also, however, like to make the following constructive comments and proposals.

First, to re-iterate our colleagues’ concerns, the current document fails to grasp that critical engagement is a positive force for improving democratic processes, authentic dialogue and public policy-making, and indeed for strengthening the UK as an innovation nation. Public, commercial and third sector bodies all gain by welcoming critical engagement as a means of recognizing and building robust and mutually rewarding relations. Second, the examples of good practice in science and society policy were startlingly narrow. A broader and better memory of the UK’s record in efforts to enhance the democratic governance of science and technology would have immeasurably improved the Vision. We fully endorse the position that the Vision, therefore, does ‘not represent an adequate of meaningful starting point for a consultation on a future science and society’.

Turning now to specific questions asked by the consultation report, we have the following constructive responses:

Q. How can good practice in public dialogue be embedded across government?

A. Improve Institutional Memory.

The current Vision notes in passing that the Council for Science and Technology in 2005 ‘identified that a corporate memory of public dialogue activity should be established in government’. The present Vision clearly shows this memory is faulty. There are recurring themes and clichés characterising science, the public, the media and engagement in the Vision that have not only been debunked by scientists and social scientists but also by parliamentary and governmental bodies. Rather than list these lapses, an alternative strategy would be to read carefully the development of policy debates and best practice which has evolved over the past twenty years in the UK, as documented in, for example, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report Setting Environmental Standards (1998), the House of Lords report on Science and Society (2000), the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004 – 2014. Effective institutional memory cannot rely on individuals. The crucial point is that ownership of this issue, along, therefore, with knowledge of how this issue has developed, and good practices, is broadly shared – across not only government, but elsewhere.

Q. How can business better engage with society and policy makers about the development and use of science in everyday life?

A. Ensure that business recognises the advantages to business of open transparent engagement.

The treatment of business in the Vision is confused and contradictory. The Vision treats the private sector as having no distinctive or profound differences or interests in its use of science (p.30-31). No-one is served well by wishful thinking. Most UK science takes place in the private sector which exhibits an highly diverse modes of public engagement; furthermore, these modes are qualitatively different from engagement in public sector settings.[2] Much could be learned if only these modes were made more visible. The critical problem is the lack of means – and sometimes will – in private sector bodies to explore this diversity. The companies that do explore this have turned this exploration to their own advantage, acknowledging the benefits of public engagement practices in helping to open up their innovation processes and build positive social relations.  This is in marked contrast to the idea of public engagement in the Vision, which sees it as a means of public relations, and market creation for products and services. 

Drawing on joint research with the RSA, let us briefly illustrate how and why private sector bodies differ in their engagement:

  • Companies, driven by profit, build highly specific relations with customers, which frame engagement activities. The engagement and communication activities in the private sector are correspondingly specific and diverse.
  • Small companies have as much to gain from engagement as larger companies, but do not have the resources, skills, experience or knowledge to engage with their publics. This picture will not change without targeted policies.
  • A company like Smiths (a top 20 UK R&D company by the R&D Scoreboard) sells science-based solutions that work within systems built and sold by other companies. Smiths therefore does not face the public at all, and understandably does little public engagement. Yet the systems they contribute to, in the form, say, of improved aircraft, do indeed powerfully shape our public world. How can a sense of the importance and benefits of engagement be embedded in such companies? How is responsibility for engagement determined and encouraged in companies in R&D supply chains? These are qualitatively different phenomena from those questions felt by public bodies, and must be recognised as such.

Q: How can the media better support society’s need for balanced information that accurately portrays the nature of science and improves scientific literacy?

A: ‘Learn to work with the media as they are.’

Having considered what scope there might be for scientists to influence the media coverage of science, the House of Lords Science and Society report concluded in 2000 that scientists should learn to work with the media as they are and could not expect ‘special treatment’. We endorse this view and encourage scientists to accept that the media and journalists adhere to different professional practices, which may or may not overlap with the goals and aims of science communication from scientists. A mature relationship with the media is one that embraces, and learns from, points of difference; and it recognises the democratic value of media criticisms and controversy.

Finally, in general, the inherent tensions that exist between strands of the government’s science and society agenda need frank recognition and honest discussion. Wanting to excite young people, or the general population about science and technology, to increase recruitment to the scientific workforce, or increase scientific information provision are laudable and achievable goals. However, the aims and objectives of these science communication activities are very different to those engagement activities which develop democratic and critical forms of engagement that allow science policy-making innovation processes to be opened up to, and shaped by, public values, concerns and aspirations. Furthermore, these processes should not be viewed as an opportunity for public relations, through which trust, confidence or excitement for science, scientists, or scientific products is manufactured, but as opportunities for building socially robust and open policy structures and processes.


Dr Jon Agar, Dr Brian Balmer, Dr Jane Gregory, Mr Simon Lock


[2] RSA (2004) What’s There to Talk About? Public engagement by science-based companies in the UK (RSA Forum for Technology, Citizens and the Market)