Focusing on inclusivity as well as excellence is crucial to restoring public trust in science
Over the past two decades, funders, researchers and institutions have shifted profoundly towards using wider and deeper systems of public engagement and outreach.
An emphasis on excellence has led to global collaborations and the development of a worldwide research ecosystem. But nowadays, most universities in the UK also have dedicated individuals or teams to support community and public engagement, with wide-ranging and easily accessed systems in place to share best practice.
Many university towns and cities host festivals and other outreach activities, while public engagement and social and economic impact are now standard assessment metrics for funders at individual grant and programme levels, as well as forming part of Research Excellence Framework returns.
The ability to share their activities with the wider public has never been more important in the typical work of an academic researcher.
For all this outreach, however, we still find ourselves surrounded by misinformation and, frequently, a lack of public trust in the work of scientists and research institutions.
Despite the considerable efforts made to break down barriers between universities and their communities, hard-to-reach audiences remain: too many people find science and research inaccessible, remote or simply not a part of their lives.
Often this is because of a basic lack of visibility—scientists on Question Time have been rare—or significant misunderstandings about risk, certainty and scientific decision-making.
The results of this disconnect are seen in the persistence of the anti-vaccination movement, or the denial of climate change as the global emergency that it is—and even, recently, doubts about warnings over Covid-19.
Ownership and control
This is why public engagement is important on an international level, too. In recent years, the British Council’s attention in research has shifted from a broader regional portfolio to activities in official development assistance overseas, encouraged and facilitated through substantial funding mechanisms including the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund. This raises questions about ownership and control.
Research impact is now measured against ODA criteria, with a primary focus on development and an aim to reach the most vulnerable populations or the most impoverished settings. Yet who decides what to measure? And who controls the impact, evaluation and implementation of the findings? The British Council builds research partnerships with institutions and academics in low-income and middle-income settings to enable work under ODA-compliant funding streams. But should it hand over control of the project design, or continue to lead it?
In the recent past, scientific research in the developing south has often been an extractive industry. As a colleague in Africa recently expressed it, the approach needs to change to one of ‘nothing about us without us’.
This has led to an underlying, persistent deficit of public trust in science and research. In a world that has famously had enough of experts, how do we build the kind of trust in science and scientific decision-making that will be necessary, for example, to implement the profound social changes required to address existential threats such as climate change and antimicrobial resistance? The problem has been illustrated dramatically by Covid-19.
It is a complex question that will require a multifaceted answer. But we have to start somewhere.
Universities already know how to foster research excellence. To build greater public trust, they need to focus on inclusivity, which will take more than one form. Through initiatives such as Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter, considerable efforts are already being made to change the face of the academy in the UK and worldwide.
This is starting to have a demonstrable impact, even though senior echelons are still less diverse than they could be. Universities have seen increasingly diverse representation every year at early-career levels and particularly in undergraduate intakes.
More broadly, the definition of excellence needs to be expanded. If it is taken to mean ‘best with best’ collaboration around the world, partnerships will always be limited to areas and fields where strength is already established, and the balance of power will always rest with countries and institutions in the northern hemisphere, as they are the ones with the power to determine what is considered best.
But if excellence in research is considered to be fostered by local peer assessment, and higher education and research infrastructures are supported in determining and ensuring research excellence wherever the research is performed, the ownership of the work and its outcomes can be handed to southern hemisphere partners and institutions.
At the British Council, we view our work in science, and across higher education more generally, as a vital pillar that helps us to engage audiences around the world. It emphasises our belief in mutuality and trust-based interactions—whether between similar institutions with equal strengths in research activity, or in building capacity to support and develop local and regional institutions and systems.
But worldwide, no matter the context, we recognise that we can do better at engaging stakeholders.
We already ask ourselves, in our impact assessments, questions about who our research is ultimately for. In many cases the work is too basic or underpinning to be broadly applicable. But in cases where it is not, we realise we could involve public and non-academic stakeholders more fully in research design and data collection—and the same applies to higher education more broadly.
Clinical research has been transformed by the emphasis in recent years on patient and public involvement in research design. Could we achieve something similar in engineering and design, or the social sciences? Citizen science initiatives could turn everyone into a data collector or research participant, encouraging a sense of investment and ownership in the findings.
We are all born experimentalists, but in too many cases—through our education and career directions—we find ourselves excluded from science and research, or often never think of it as applicable to our lives. Changing this perception could help us to build public trust in science and research, which will be necessary to address the challenges of the 21st century.
Jen Bardsley is global head of science at the British Council.