Recently I came across an interesting quote from Sir Mark Walport, the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. It was “science isn’t finished until it is communicated” delivered as part of a speech on climate change at a meeting in Cambridge. As scientists, we do have a duty to not only report our research to other scientists (to funders, the scientific community) but also to communicate relevant scientific findings to both the public and policy makers. How the information is conveyed will need to be contextualised in a way that is meaningful to the intended audience and this can sometimes be difficult. For example, my family frequently tell me that I go into too much detail and overcomplicate things when I am trying to explain some interesting science to them (and they are an engineer and an economist!). An informed society will be able to make more considered choices and be more readily able to engage in future public debates about science and its application and to take full advantage of what scientific advances are making possible.
I realise that we all have an increasing number of pressures in just ‘doing our day job’ but communication and engagement are even more important today than in the past. We have seen what happens when scientific advances are not communicated effectively and when we don’t listen and respond to society’s concerns and apprehensions – for instance in the case of genetically modified crops. So we have to pay more than lip service to communication, in its widest sense; we need to be proactive and be prepared to listen. Good examples of engagement exist both within and without the UK academic community. In Cork, in the Republic of Ireland, the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre has an exemplary comprehensive outreach programme which works on multiple levels – with schools and teachers, the public, the medical community and patients. Within the BBSRC family, our strategically funded institutes are also moving towards greater engagement and dialogue. The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) does excellent work with schools and the public to increase awareness of the research advances in genomics and bioinformatics and their potential relevance to several aspects of everyday life. TGAC, the rest of the institutes and our university research community have access to BBSRC resources, School Regional Champions and our national coordinator based at the Norwich Research Park to support engagement with young people. Rothamsted Research has just started a new project jointly with BBSRC and Sciencewise-ERC to engage a diverse group of local public and stakeholders to develop principles to inform the institute’s work with industry. There will also be more opportunities for members of the BBSRC community to be involved as part of our 20th Anniversary programme, with funding now available for groups to develop science communication exhibits.
Communication of the impacts of our research has also become increasingly important – effectively showing how the money invested in research in the biosciences creates value to the UK economy and society. I read an interesting report that The Roslin Institute commissioned (PDF). It quantified the value generated by investment in research at The Roslin Institute and shows that for every £1 of public funding received, The Roslin Institute generated £12.87 GVA for the UK economy. There are also some very good and specific examples of the underpinning economic and scientific impact in their report.
Coincidentally the 2014 ‘Access to Understanding’ science writing competition is now open for entries. Run by Europe PubMed Central and the British Library, the competition encourages scientists to make current research exciting and engaging for all. ‘Access to Understanding’ is open to all early-career bioscience researchers (including PhD students) and the shortlisted entries will be invited to an awards ceremony at the British Library, with the winner receiving an iPad alongside their article being printed in the journal eLife.