Do we need a “people’s panel” for science?

Do we need a “people’s panel” for science? This was the question posed at a Science Wise/ Dana Centre event last week entitled Whose Science?

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.

6 thoughts on “Do we need a “people’s panel” for science?

  1. Mark

    Imperial College BioSoc Debate 2011- Thurs 24th Feb – Has the media failed science? “Science author for the public – Simon Singh”. In my opinion a very good choice but he’s not exactly representative is he? I dont know how this could ever be achieved otherwise, twitter?

    1. alice Post author

      Well twitter’s not representative either!

      I don’t think it will ever be representative. MPs certainty aren’t, and really, neither are the people who turn up to vote for them. This is precisely why you need a diversity of approaches – to get as many different voices as possible.

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  3. Alan Winfield

    I agree Alice. I think public engagement about science needs a rich ecosystem of types of engagement on a diverse range of issues. In my experience people engage best when it’s about a single issue that interests them (i.e. robot ethics) rather than a vague area of science policy. If I understand it correctly a people’s panel would fall too easily into the politicians’ tick box category for “consulted the public on science policy”.

    In haste. Best wishes

  4. Kieron Flanagan

    @alice, I broadly agree with your point about the tension with representative democracy and I also worry about the dangers of mixing and matching representative and participatory approaches. Indeed my own interest in having non-scientist members of the broader public somehow involved in making decisions about some allocation of resources to fund research (I’ve several times argued for a small scale experiment involving a modest sum of money) are much more driven by my curiosity about how they would go about making such decisions and what that might tell us about research priorities (and perhaps also about science communication) than around problematic ideas (wishful thinking) about more ‘socially-robust’ or democratic decision-making.

    1. alice Post author

      Thanks Kieron for framing it as mixing and matching representative and participatory approaches. I was avoiding that sort of language, but I agree it’s a useful way of thinking about it.

      Still, I think my main problem here is the idea that something like “the general public” even exists. It doesn’t, or at least only in highly rhetorical ways which are likely to be punctured when it gets to an actual engagement project. I also worry that “the general public”is highly romanticised here for its ability to bring in alternative views (not to mention be happy and feel able to do this).

      So, rather than playing with putting the public together with policy makers/ funders and seeing what happens from this magical and unexpected mix of “experts” with “the public”, I think we should develop a model which is already being worked through the Research Councils – that of including non-academic experts/ stakeholders in the peer review college. Of course, those who have the final say in funding up high need to pay attention, and academics need to learn how to write funding proposals that people outside their own sub-sub-sub discipline will understanding (I think engagement work on a more informal level helps this), but it’s a good model, in my view.


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