Disincentives to scientists engaging with society must be removed, says John Denham

UK Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills John Denham has a vision of his country that is ‘excited about sciences, values its importance to our economic and social
well-being, feels confident in its use and supports a representative, well-qualified scientific workforce’.

Making this vision a reality involves more engagement between science and society, and more influence for scientific evidence in policy-making, he said.

‘If policy-makers do not have access to world class scientific evidence and advice, we will not be able to make the best decisions about the tough challenges facing the country. If the public
do not have the capacity to understand scientific evidence and risk, they face being unable to make the best decisions for themselves and their families or, in a democracy, put the most
appropriate pressure on politicians,’ Mr Denham told members of the Royal Society for Encouragement of the Arts, Commerce and Manufacturers (RSA).

He spoke of a need to change the current system, which tends to penalise those scientists who do engage with policy advice of engagement with the public over those who pursue the publishing of
papers.

‘The work that some scientists and academic departments do to support policy-makers can be undervalued […]. To my mind, a scientist who produces fewer papers but produces excellent evidence
and advice in the national interest on behalf of Government should not feel that they disadvantage themselves, their research colleagues or their institution when research funds are
distributed,’ said Mr Denham.

This view of disincentives to public engagement was backed up by renowned scientist Lord Robert Winston, who is a Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College London and is well known
to television-viewers in the UK.

When Lord Winston first tried to get the general public involved in his work, his colleagues saw his attempts as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘not real science’, he said. ‘So often, science was the
preserve of boffins working behind closed doors. But we now recognise that public engagement with science is vital if we are to make progress as a society, and reaching out to the public and
responding to public concerns is a vital part of our citizenship as scientists,’ he added.

The Secretary of State told his audience that it is his aim to embed scientific advice in all policy-making, and to expand the advisory role of the scientific community within the Government.
He pledged to examine how current funding systems could be modified so as to better support such work.

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