This week I attended the Discovery Awards associated with the Longitude Prize. These provide seedcorn money for those facing some bottleneck in their quest for a rapid test that helps to rule out unnecessary use of antibiotics, the focus of the overall Longitude Prize. You can read about all the winners and their ideas here: 5 from the UK, 5 from India and 2 from the US. Before the actual award ceremony, Dame Sally Davies – who had championed Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) as the area for the prize in the run-up to the public vote – asked at the reception who in the room had been aware of AMR more than 3 years ago. Being a room made up predominantly of scientists, almost everyone’s hand went up. The reality is, ask the same question in a random public space and the response would have been rather different. Although awareness of AMR is increasing – as the results of a recent survey which were shown to the Longitude Committee (of which I am a member) before the event reveal – it is certainly not yet ubiquitous. People still don’t necessarily appreciate the difference between viruses and bacteria.
So we, the ‘experts’ need to do more. Dismay at the way experts are being hobbled by populist politicians and the media around the world – and not just the UK’s own Michael Gove who certainly made clear his own contempt for them in the run up to this summer’s Referendum – seems to be a frequent topic for discussion among my colleagues. But then, we, as scientists, are all (in the way that the word is being used) experts. We believe in evidence, studying facts rather than trumpeting misleading if not downright false slogans. However we cannot just sit back, say that everyone else is wrong in their attitudes and wait for the world to right itself. We need to get out there, understand where the rejection of our apparent expertise has come from and realise that just because we think something is self-evident, for others (probably but not necessarily those who are less affluent, had fewer years of education or whose job prospects are not sunny) this is far from the case.
Cambridge, the city, may have voted very strongly in favour of Remain. It is, by comparison with many other parts of the country, an affluent city with house prices to match; something that causes its own problems. But you don’t need to go very far beyond the city boundaries, out into the bleak black lands of the fens, to find real poverty and utterly different attitudes. That is territory which is likely to have been fertile ground for Michael Gove’s disdainful remarks.
A thorough economic analysis of Cambridge itself in contrast to South Yorkshire has recently been presented by my friend and erstwhile Cambridge colleague Richard Jones on his own blog (he happens to be on sabbatical here from his position in Sheffield, essentially commuting between the two regions). Questioning ‘What has science policy ever done for Barnsley?’ he highlights economic differences and concerns rather more than social ones, but the two of course are intimately linked. It isn’t only about local jobs. If, for example, the Barnsley (or March or Wisbech to cite some local Fenland towns) resident were able to relate to AMR and appreciate their elderly aunt who has just had a hip replacement might die of MRSA because of antibiotics being wrongly prescribed elsewhere; or succumb due to courses of treatment being thrown away half way through, perhaps they’d be able to appreciate that science does not amount to a luxury for the few but impacts on their nearest and dearest.
People talk in terms, currently, of public engagement with science (as opposed to earlier variants of the same concept described variously as public understanding and public awareness). But, whether or not engagement is the right word, the intended purpose cannot be served merely by Science Festivals – however wonderful they are – or even school visits. These may serve to inspire some scientists of the future certainly, but alone they will not conquer the suspicion aroused by experts. Few Wisbech residents probably make it to the action-packed Cambridge Science Festival (the same may be true of Barnsley and Sheffield) and those who do will be very much self-selected as already appreciating there might be something to gain. Instead scientists need to get off their high horses and get ‘out there’ in some shape or form. I believe we made a fundamental mistake in much of the rhetoric in the run-up to the referendum stressing how our research would be damaged by Brexit. This smacked too much of special pleading, however true it may be. It is hard to believe Wisbech (wo)man gave much of a damn. But if we talked about the damage to jobs, productivity, health (and I don’t mean whether or not the NHS was going to get £350M a week; anyhow we now know the answer to that!) because of the science we do, possibly it would have made more impact. Certainly we should not have talked solely in terms of OUR research, because – blue skies or not – the research should be for everyone ultimately.
I don’t know how this is best done. I simply know that sitting in Cambridge, even if amongst the brutalist architecture of Churchill College rather than in an ivory tower, is never going to be sufficient. I am a great admirer (and indeed a patron) of the Cambridge Science Centre that takes its exhibits out to the local area, in community centres and schools, for everyone to engage with. This is a fantastic way to start (which of course costs money to achieve) because it doesn’t rely on families and individuals making the trip into Cambridge. Furthermore it isn’t simply part of school lessons, which so many visits of scientists are (I have such a visit booked soon myself in a community college some way outside Cambridge). For many, the very fact a talk is part of the school curriculum is itself a turn off. Soapbox Science is another fun way to interact with the public in ways that perhaps seem less threatening to the passing audience, as well as highlighting the fact that women can be scientists too. Nevertheless these activities could still be seen as trying to instruct and inform, rather than demonstrate relevance to the disaffected. If it were possible to get more science-based articles into the tabloids (as opposed only into the worthy science pages of something like the Guardian, as of course I occasionally do) that might reach a more diverse audience and so be constructive. The community has to reflect how best to engage and listen as well as inform.
Perhaps that is why the topic of AMR may be a good topic to start with because, whether they know it or not, everyone does have a stake in that. Collectively the science community has to recognize that their expertise is not seen as being of any relevance to far too many of our population. Work to do. Work to do in thinking again about how to optimise ‘public engagement’. For me, just trying to write this post in words that do not appear to imply a patronising arrogance towards others indicates personally I have my own work cut out.