Is the public behind public consultations?

The latest UK study into public attitudes to science was published earlier this month. PAS 2011 – the fourth in a series – represents the Government’s main mechanism for assessing progress on public engagement with science.

One section that caught my attention was about the attitudes of the Brits to public consultations. Public consultations on scientific matters are becoming an increasingly important part of the policy-making process. This study explores people’s views on them with some interesting findings.

The public broadly supports the principle of the public being consulted – 73% agree the government should act in accordance with public concerns. 66% agree scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

Listen perhaps, but not necessarily act upon public opinion. 64% of people think experts and not the public should advise the government about the implications of scientific developments.

Also in practice the enthusiasm seems to disappear a little…. when asked whether they would like to be involved personally, many responded that although they would like to know someone was taking part, they would rather it wasn’t them.

Interestingly, the public sees the main benefits of being involved in public participation as those which benefit themselves. For instance the top ranked responses of benefits are “allowing the public to make informed decisions about their lives” and “enabling them to better judge science issues for themselves”.

A more worrying finding is that the public are quite cynical about consultations and see the whole process as a PR stunt.

50% believe “public consultation events are just public relations activities and make no difference to policy”. 47% agree “public consultation events are unrepresentative of public opinion.

A ray of hope is that these negative attitudes may be founded on ignorance. When asked what they know about “public participation”, two fifths of the population say they don’t know, have never heard of it or just gave no response at all.

If you want to know more about this or many other aspects of public engagement click here. There is also a blog about the study here (which Karin also blogged about on the VA blog here).

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