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A People’s Panel? No thanks. We’re bigger than that

I think we should talk about science policy more. By we I don’t just mean people who read blogs like this. I mean everyone.

So I was interested to see the Science Museum’s Dana Centre were hosting an event last week entitled Whose Science? The blurb promised questions like ‘Who should decide which direction research takes us and what takes priority?’ and ‘Do scientists and politicians know best, or should the public help decide?’. Tom Wakford trailed his talk with a post on Research Blogs.

Turned out it was a sort of soft launch for a new initiative from the government’s experts on public engagement, Science Wise: a ‘People’s Panel’ for science.

This idea worries me, and not just because the names a bit corny. It worries me because I don’t want public engagement with science done by a committee. It’s just too neat, too restrictive, too easily manipulated and too easily ignored. It decries the complexity, the detail and simple serendipity that brings a member of ‘the public’ into contact with an area of science.

Who will sit on this panel and why? How will stop it from being taken over with those with an axe to grind (insert your own personal science policy bogyman here). Surely the whole of science is rather a big area for one panel? Surely it’ll be easily ignored, or even manipulated as a legitimating strategy for ignoring an expert’s advice? Surely this is all just a bit cover for government doing what it wants?

I heard all these questions raised at the Dana event, but I didn’t hear any answers. Maybe Science Wise have a more developed idea than a simple panel. The pseudo-public pseudo-debate set-up of a Dana event didnt exactly help explain things. If they do have good ideas, I’m yet to see them.

The thing that worries me most is this: what about the person who doesn’t bother much about science policy. They don’t even hear about the People’s Panel, let alone bother to join. Why should they? We’re all busy people. But then something changes in their life. It doesnt matter what, it could be almost anything. Suddenly, they do care. Not about the whole of science, but about some very specific detail. Suddenly, they care an awful lot. Moreover, their weird little new personal situation means they have something useful to contribute. Now they want to be involved, but their knowledge and passion can’t be represented directly because people’ like them are supposed to exist through a panel.

We already have people’s panel of sorts. They are called MPs. Use them. Moreover, use their connections to their constituents. Encourage people to lobby their MPs on science policy issues, publicly embarrass MPs who do not take science policy seriously and bug parties into putting statements about science in their manifestos. We should also make more of the mass media. As Paul Nurse said at last week’s Royal Society Scientists Meet the Media party, the press help open up public dialogue. Follow, for example, Imran Khan’s suggestion that scientists and engineers who sit on government advisory committees should be given independent press officers: a bit of basic support to help make their findings public and, crucially, help inspire a bit of informed public debate. I also think public consultations could be made more public and accessible too.

We should be imaginative about what we mean by ‘media’ here, and work with museums, festivals and Café Scientifique, as well as (or perhaps especially) the more politically orientated projects like Skeptics in the Pub and Green Drinks. We should develop projects that involve experts other than just academics in peer review. We should invest in work that takes debates about science or technology out into spaces like supermarkets, schools or libraries, online, in schools and in the workplace, as well as initiatives which open up scientific work through citizen science, research blogging or a simple open day at a lab.

We need more public engagement with science, and for science to engage more with the public too. We also need to build better relationships between scientists and politicians, and this needs to be done in public, so more people can eavesdrop and join in on the debate. We need to have conversations about science policy when new issues pop up, and to build relationships early on, before we even realise problems have arisen. We need a diversity of conversations, in a diversity of contexts, involving a diversity of people. As a recent pamphlet from the New Economics Foundation puts it: tackle big issues by linking small conversations.

At one point the Science Wise representative referred to the Big Society. The audience groaned, but that’s the last of her problems. A People’s Panel isn’t ‘Big Society’. Its main problem is that it’s way, way too small.