I didn’t like it much.
It’s just too neat, too restrictive, too easily manipulated and too easily ignored. It decries the complexity, the detail and simple serendipity that brings a member of ‘the public’ into contact with an area of science.
The thing that worries me most is this: what about the person who doesn’t bother much about science policy. They don’t even hear about the People’s Panel, let alone bother to join. Why should they? We’re all busy people. But then something changes in their life. It doesn’t matter what, it could be almost anything. Suddenly, they do care. Not about the whole of science, but about some very specific detail. Suddenly, they care an awful lot. Moreover, their weird little new personal situation means they have something useful to contribute. Now they want to be involved, but their knowledge and passion can’t be represented directly because ‘people’ like them are supposed to exist through a panel.
We have public representatives for science policy. They are called MPs. We need to make that relationship work more effectively. Encourage people to lobby their MPs on science policy issues, publicly embarrass MPs who do not take science policy seriously and bug parties into putting statements about science in their manifestos.
We should also make more of the mass media; use the press to spark off public debate on science policy issues. Use no-so-mass media: blogs, museums, festivals and Café Scientifique, as well as more politically orientated projects such as Skeptics in the Pub or Green Drinks. Invest in inventive outreach work, as well as the more intricate dialogue projects Science Wise specialise in. Give scientists who sit on government advisory committees independent press officers, and make public consultations more accessible too. Develop projects that involve experts other than just academics in peer review for funding.
We need more public engagement with science, and for science to engage with the public more too. We also need to build better relationships between scientists and politicians, and this needs to be done in public, so more people can eavesdrop and join in on the debate. We need to have conversations about science policy when new issues pop up, and to build relationships early on, before we even realise problems have arisen. We need a diversity of conversations, in a diversity of contexts, involving a diversity of people.
At one point the Science Wise representative referred to the idea as being ‘Big Society’. The audience groaned, but that sort of reaction is the last of their problems. For me, a People’s Panel isn’t ‘Big Society’ in the slighted. Its main problem is that it’s way, way too small.
You can read a slightly longer version of this rant over at Research Blogs.