Why should the public be involved in science?

“For research to be really impactful, the public has to be involved. They need to understand the research and we need to help to connect the research to what people care about,” says Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement at Wellcome Trust in the UK, one of the world’s largest research funders. But do the public wish to be involved in science? The German and Swedish Science Barometers, the EU-project ORION Open Science European public attitudes survey and the Wellcome Trust Global Monitor have all asked this question.

 
Imran Khan was one of the speakers at the special workshop ”Why should the public be involved in science?” arranged on 3 April prior to the annual Forum for Science Communication, held in Sweden as part of the International Science Festival Gothenburg. Around 50 senior communications managers from the Nordic countries participated in the interactive workshop with the aim of sharing knowledge about public attitudes to public engagement in science and discuss citizens’ interest in getting involved in research. Imran Khan claims that research institutions have a social contract with the public and have to attract the public’s interest in order to gain trust. Making research relevant to the public is the first thing that we have to do as scientists, he said.

During the workshop, he talked about the Wellcome Trust Global Monitor, the world’s largest study into how people around the world think and feel about science and major health challenges. It surveys over 140,000 individuals from more than 140 countries. Right now, Wellcome is analysing the latest responses, which will be published in June. Imran Khan did however share some preliminary insights from questions such as which societal groups should be involved in setting health research priorities.

Ricarda Ziegler, Strategy Officer at the German association Wissenschaft im Dialog, presented results from their Science Barometer 2018 in which public attitudes towards science and research in Germany were surveyed. While trust in science and research in general remains stable, many respondents agree that it is difficult to judge which information is correct when scientists themselves disagree.

The public is not really doubting the expertise or integrity of researchers, but the research community has to communicate more about their motives,

commented Ricarda Ziegler.

Gustav Bohlin, Researcher at VA (Public & Science), presented the Swedish VA Barometer 2018/2019, which is based on 1,000 telephone interviews, a similar number as the German barometer. In Sweden, he said, there is strong support for public involvement in research in general and quite a strong interest for getting personally involved. A noteworthy finding was that the willingness to participate in research is not restricted to data collection but encompasses several parts of the research process.

Luiza Bengtsson, Public Engagement and Knowledge Exchange Officer at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association in Germany, presented a report on ”Public attitudes to life sciences research in six European countries”. About 6,000 persons were interviewed for the study, which was conducted as part of the ORION Open Science EU Horizon 2020-project. One main finding was that interest in life sciences research is generally high among citizens, particularly in Italy.

After the presentations, the participants discussed in smaller groups why and how the public should be involved in science. They then shared their thoughts both orally and by using an online tool. According to the workshop participants, the public should be involved in science because:

  • Science will have an impact on their lives.
  • We need the views of the public.
  • Knowledge gives insights and increases trust. It’s a base for democracy.
  • It can improve quality and broaden perspectives.
  • They pay for it!

But how can we interest the public to get involved? Some suggestions from the participants in the workshop included:

  • Must depart from their own interest and relevance.
  • The wow effect – science is fun!
  • Create arenas for connection between researchers and the public.
  • Show how research affects society and how you can contribute.
  • Make participating fun and giving.

The workshop ”Why should the public be involved in science?” was organised by the Swedish Research CouncilVA (Public & Science) and the EU-project ORION Open Science.


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