During my time at Sense About Science one of my main responsibilities has been running the Energy Panel and the Plant Science Panels and for me this has been some of the most interesting work. The panels are made up of experts in the respective fields, who have made themselves available to answer public questions. As part of my responsibilities I field questions from the public, choose the appropriate scientist to answer (in the case of the Plant Science Panel there are over 50 different specialists), then if necessary edit the answer to make it more readable, before publicising it.
So what is the point in getting scientists to answer public questions? As a charity tasked with “increasing public understanding of science and evidence” SAS have on the face of it a near impossible task. On many hot topic issues the lines have now become so entrenched and polarised that people will not budge from their opinions. Take for example, climate change. For well over 20 years the science has been clear and even surpassed the most difficult tasks of being accepted by policy makers (the Kyoto protocol is 18 years old). But still even today there are many who aren’t convinced, often basing their objections on ideological stand points than any real evidence. Another example would be those who oppose vaccinating children, on the grounds that vaccines cause autism, a claim that has been disproved time and time again.
What the Panels aim to do is bridge the gap between scientists and the public, creating dialogue and trust that is so often lacking. In order to achieve this the approach take is one of public-led expert-fed discussion. The public choose the path of the debate with their questions, the scientists give the best answer they can. This is important because if scientists want to continue they need policy makers support, they need public support… so the public need to have their concerns addressed, they need to have their questions answered. Part of the problem so often with scientific discussion is people can feel they are being lectured or even patronised. The panels put the public in the driving seat, whilst allowing the scientists to make their case. In this way it is hoped that apparent controversial issues can be made acceptable to the public and to policy makers, or at the very least take some heat, hyperbole and misinformation out of the conversation. In the case of the energy panel issues include climate change, fracking, nuclear energy and renewable energy. For the plant science panel GMOs, the use of pesticides and plant diseases such as ash dieback.
So what I’m doing as part of my work at SAS is encouraging discourse between scientists and the public, sharing information and building trust; all from behind my small desk. Well at least that’s what I’m trying to do.