The Office for Public Management has been commissioned by the Wellcome
Trust to explore the future of the relationship between science and the
public. psci-com members are invited to comment. Please send any responses
to David Albury on the contacts below. If any one would like this as a Word
attachment, please let me know.
183 Euston Road
Tel: + 44 020 7611 8510
Fax:+ 44 020 7611 8726
The Wellcome Trust is a registered charity No.210183
The relationship between the public and science
Scenarios of the future
In October last year a workshop was held with a group of experts to map the
dynamics of the relationship. The discussions at that workshop guided the
design of a "Delphi" process involving individuals from a wide range of key
groups and organisations - scientific, media, governmental, commercial,
medical, educational, pressure, consumer and environmental - in determining
a number of scenarios of what the relationship might be like in the coming
The first stage of the Delphi process invited participants to respond to a
series of open questions on various aspects of the relationship. The outputs
from that stage were used to formulate over 100 "statements" about the
relationship. In the second stage participants were asked, by questionnaire,
to give their views on the "likelihood" and "desirability" of each of the
statements. A factor and cluster analysis of the results of the
questionnaire has been carried and two scenarios of the future of the
relationship between science and the public emerged.
We are now inviting the participants and members of
to comment on these scenarios. Comments can be sent by post (David Albury,
Senior Fellow in Organisational Development, Office for Public Management,
252B Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8JT), by fax (David Albury, 020 7837 6581)
or by e-mail ([log in to unmask] <mailto:[log in to unmask]>). The deadline
for receipt of comments is 15 September 2000.
The comments received will be used to refine the scenarios. The amended
scenarios will then be the basis for an open behavioural simulation of new
relationships between the science and the public. The learning from the
simulation will provide an opportunity for the Wellcome Trust and other
relevant organisations to identify their future activities in this area.
Although two clearly different scenarios of what is likely to happen in the
future have emerged, in a number of areas there was a consensus of
* whether there are likely to be significant
changes in the nature of science education
* whether research charities and government
will feel obliged to respond to public priorities for research funding
* the relative balance of legitimacy and
influence between local, national and supranational bodies.
There was also a significant gap between what participants thought was
desirable or undesirable about some aspects of the relationship between
science and the public and what they thought was likely.
* Whilst nearly all participants thought it
was desirable that the public should have a positive view of scientific
developments, there was a strong belief that in one of the scenarios this
would not happen.
* Many thought that scientists should become
enthusiastic about public involvement and consultation. Few thought this
would be the case.
* A majority believed science education should
change significantly, giving more emphasis to understanding the ethical and
social dimensions of science and technology, helping the public make
balanced judgements in the face of conflicting scientific opinions. Only a
minority judged this likely.
* Most thought that the public, and public
priorities, should have more influence on the mainstream research agenda.
Many feared that pressure groups would make certain lines of enquiry
* In terms of key players in the relationship
between science and the public: most, at least in professional groups,
thought it desirable that these should be educationalists and
scientists/technologists with the media and the internet having lesser
roles, whilst the reverse was considered to be likely.
Rational arguments and scientific information will determine public policy
towards scientific development and technological exploitation.
Continuing and greater efforts will be made by individual scientists and
scientific organisations to inform the public about developments in science,
technology and medicine and to routinely communicate their methods and
results. Scientists and funders of research will understand better how to
take consumers' views seriously, and external scrutiny of developments will
become the norm. Those scientists who have demonstrated their grasp of the
human and cultural dimensions of science and technology will play a major
role in managing the interface between science and the public, and more
scientists will form activist groups to promote "public understanding of
science". There is some shift in emphasis within science education from
facts and information towards thinking and reasoning skills.
However, despite all these efforts, there will be continuing fear and lack
of trust by the public in scientific and technological advancement. The
increasingly negative attitude towards science will be accompanied by a
decrease in the public's involvement in scientific debate. They will also
have little confidence in regulatory bodies, perhaps due to those bodies'
apparent lack of accountability. The 'anti-science' sentiment of the British
public will persist, possibly driven by concerns over the potential risks
that might be caused by scientific and technological advances. There will be
strong feelings of scepticism about what these advances are meant to
achieve. The public will continue to believe in the media-hyped 'scare
stories', particularly as the tabloid press will continue to cover science
and technology issues in a sensationalist way.
Large multi-national corporations will be perceived as not having a real
sense of responsibility to society as a whole, and this and other factors
will hinder full debate on the social implications of scientific and
Everyone, including individuals, pressure groups and public and private
organisations, will have more opportunities to participate in and influence
the direction of scientific research and policies. With more people using
the internet, communication will be easier and quicker, making it possible
to hold debates and forums on issues between, for example, policy-makers and
the public. In addition, focus groups and citizens' panels will be used more
extensively to gauge public attitudes to scientific development and
organisations will develop a range of techniques for public involvement and
consultation. This will lead to wider ownership of the research agenda and
the overall heightened public awareness of science and technology will
facilitate increases in research funding.
More informed and wide-ranging debate on scientific and technological issues
encourages media coverage to highlight alternative opinions and undertake
independent investigations of risks and benefits. Regulation will become
tighter, more open and more influenced by different sections of the public
and pressure groups. Financial institutions will be evermore cautious about
investing in scientific and medical research-based companies whose products
might provoke public opposition. Corporate research funding will also be
open to much more scrutiny by more questioning board members. All these
factors will result in some lines of research not being funded or pursued
due to their potentially adverse consequences and public unacceptability.
There will, in general, be greater recognition of the validity of differing
views on the merits or otherwise of particular scientific developments,
though increasing anxiety of a widening gap of influence between a
'knowledge-based' professional class and a semi-literate underclass and a
continuing domination of channels of communication by large corporations.
Although scientific research and product development agencies will be
required to provide specified information to the public on the impact of
developments being researched, and despite the fact that regulation and
accountability will be more transparent, the public will continue to be less
likely to trust statements from the Government about scientific and