The Role Of Scientists In Public Debate



Research into the field of 'public understanding of science' has tended to focus on identifying and understanding the views of the general public towards science. Little effort has been made to understand how scientists themselves perceive increasing calls for them to become more involved in communicating their research to the public, and to increase dialogue on the social and ethical implications of this research. For this reason, the Wellcome Trust commissioned MORI to undertake a large-scale nationwide survey of scientists who are funded by a range of academic, charity and industry sources.

The research aimed to investigate whether scientists consider themselves to be the people most responsible for and best equipped to communicate their scientific research and its implications to the public, what benefits and barriers they see to a greater public understanding of science and what needs to change for scientists to take a greater role in science communication.

This survey is based on face-to-face interviews with a randomly selected sample of scientists working in Great Britain.

Key Findings

  1. There is a large gap between the way that scientists perceive themselves, and the way they think the public perceives scientists. Scientists have a far more favourable image of themselves, than they think the public has of them.
  2. Most scientists can see benefits to the non-specialist public having a greater understanding of science, but most can see barriers too. A lack of public knowledge, education and/or interest in science is regarded as a barrier by three in four scientists, and a third also perceive the media in this light.
  3. The main sources of information which scientists think the public use for information about scientific research and its implications are national newspapers and television. Scientists think that the public primarily trusts the media, and those working for charities and campaigning groups, to provide accurate information about these areas, while they themselves are most inclined to trust those working in scientific circles.
  4. The vast majority of scientists believe it is their duty to communicate their research and its social and ethical implications to policy-makers, and to the non-specialist public. A clear majority also feels that scientists should report on any social and ethical implications of their work when publishing their research findings. Many scientists feel constrained by the day-to-day requirements of their job, leaving them with too little time to communicate, or even to carry out their research.
  5. Scientists mention a variety of groups as being the most important with which to communicate - indicating a broad perceived potential audience overall. Most scientists feel that scientists themselves should have the main responsibility for communicating the social and ethical implications of scientific research to the non-specialist public. However, fewer feel that scientists are the people best equipped to do this.
  6. Just over half of scientists have participated in one or more of fifteen given forms of communications activity in the last year. Participation is related to scientists' skill and confidence: those who feel equipped to communicate the scientific facts and implications of their research, and scientists who have received training, are more likely to have participated. Similarly, scientists who teach, as well as conduct research, and who therefore have experience of communicating to non-specialists, are more likely to have communicated in the past year.
  7. Three-quarters of scientists feel equipped to communicate the scientific facts of their research, although only one in five feels very well equipped. Confidence declines when scientists are asked how they feel about communicating the social and ethical implications of their research. Among those whose work has social and ethical implications, 62% feel equipped, and one in ten feel very well equipped.
  8. The overwhelming majority of scientists have not been trained to liaise with the media, or to communicate with the non-specialist public. Most scientists are aware that their institution or department provides a range of communications services. In contrast, relatively few scientists are aware of any communications services provided by funders.
  9. A wide variety of stimuli to improve communications are mentioned by scientists. Incentives from funding authorities to encourage time spent on science communication are mentioned most frequently, followed by training in dealing with the media, and encouragement by institutions of time spent on science communication.

Download the executive summary of findings here. [pdf format 40K]

Download the full report here. [pdf format 344K]

Download the appendices here. [pdf format 996K]


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