Science – Not just for scientists

Imran Khan, Chief Executive, British Science Association

No-one should feel the need to apologise for not being a scientist. And yet when I tell people I work for the British Science Association (BSA), embarrassment is a common response. “I don’t really understand science”, I hear. “Oh, I’m more of an arty person”, they say, or, “the last time I did science was at school”.

Such embarrassment is misplaced; not liking science is fine. The real concern is when people are excluded when they don’t need to be – and this happens with science more than it does for many other parts of our culture. Music, literature, politics, and sport, for instance, can all be shaped by anyone who consumes, creates, or critiques them – not just by their respective professional classes.

At the BSA we see science as the way in which we explore the natural and social world. We see its influences in fields ranging from mathematics to engineering, and medicine to economics. But even with this broad and inclusive definition and scope, science is often seen as too complex for anyone but experts.

This is a problem. Science is too important, valuable and fascinating to be left to professional scientists alone. For the good of society, the public, and scientific progress itself, science needs a broader community.

The BSA therefore aims to make science a more fundamental part of British society and culture. The question follows, what would a public that was truly connected with science look like and how can we make that happen? How would that change science?

Today, scientists are among the most trusted of all professionals in the UK.1 Brits are significantly more proud of our nation’s scientific achievements (83 per cent) than our democratic system (69 per cent) or the UK’s influence on the world (59 per cent). 2Yet research also shows that 71 per cent of UK adults do not feel able or inclined to discuss and engage with science.3

So science is well respected by society, but people feel disconnected from it. It points us to the difference between respect and engagement, and how too much of the former might impede the latter.

As a society, we pay scientists what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls ‘civil inattention’. 4We allow them to continue their work uninterrupted, and don’t feel the need to engage with science when it’s going well. It is only when a crisis such as BSE or MMR causes concern that we feel the need to question what’s happening. Normal times see little critique, celebration, challenge, or championing of science by non-scientists. Is this because we have just a little bit too much reverence for the scientific profession?

The scientific method can explain the world around us in an elegant and creative way, but scientists cannot escape the influence of external pressures and personal bias. Scientists have been put on a pedestal and are often seen as entirely rational, objective and expert – but this paints science as a near-infallible institution that doesn’t want or require engagement from non-scientists.

That is asking for trouble.

As Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, argues, a reduction in trust can be beneficial for those involved. In medicine, decades of activism and the prevalence of health information online is forcing greater transparency and improvements in medical practice. 5Can this approach be extended to the rest of science? Could we have a citizenship that critically questions all of the UK’s public institutions, including science?

For more people to be involved in science, we have to create a shared understanding of what science is. For instance, it’s tempting to see science as fundamentally progressive, an inherently benevolent force. But we have to recognise that it can have a dark side as well. This isn’t just an issue for scientists; the BSA believes that society as a whole should be able to bear some responsibility for how science is used.

Last year, for instance, we marked the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was one of the earliest – but certainly not the last – conflicts where the products of science were used to gas other human beings in their hundreds of thousands. Mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene were developed and deployed by both sides, despite previous treaties having banned them.

Nearly 200,000 British troops alone were struck by chemical attacks; non-fatal doses often scarred or afflicted soldiers for life. For many, this was the moment when we really became aware of the indiscriminately destructive potential of science. But, as part of the same conflict, science was also used to develop innovations such as blood transfusion, prosthetic limbs and reconstructive surgery.

Science does not exist in a moral vacuum. It is not inherently good or evil, but a platform for expressing human instincts, whether they be violence, kindness or creativity. We should celebrate new discoveries such as the Higgs Boson and the Mars Rover but we also need to find a space where scientists and the public can be involved in a debate about responsible scientific innovation. Both the innovators and the rest of us need to be held to account.

The financial sector shows us what can happen when this accountability is missing. In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, politicians and commentators of all stripes talked of the crisis also being an opportunity to have a public debate on the rebalancing of our economy and how our financial system should work.

Years later, it’s clear that neither the debate nor the rebalancing happened. I’d argue that this is, at least in part, because so few people are engaged enough with the issues to competently participate in any such debate. With scientific advancements playing a larger role in our lives in every year that goes by, we can’t afford for the public to become as antipathetic towards science and scientists as it has towards finance and financiers.

It is vital that the processes and products of science are readily available for the public to understand and interrogate. This is not to say that science isn’t regulated. One of the distinctive strengths of science is peer review; the process by which scientists hold each other to account.

This self-governance undoubtedly strengthens research but it shouldn’t absolve the rest of us from the responsibility to challenge and improve the science being done on our behalf.

But this leaves most scientists in a fairly unique position of self-regulation. Many other professions and sectors have had this privilege or responsibility removed. In politics, a range of people hold our government to account for the decisions they make about our society. Journalists, judges, members of the public, websites such as They work for you, campaign groups. They all critique politicians, and ask for transparency – in science, it is only other scientists that do this.

A broader community of critical friends would be good for science as a whole, and not just specific areas of research. This extended peer community, as advocated for by Funtowicz and Ravetz, should include representatives of all those that are affected by the subject and that are willing to discuss it. 6The breadth of their experience would be invaluable in keeping a check on what scientists are doing.

For instance, the recently announced review of the Research Councils, led by the British Science Association’s esteemed outgoing President, Sir Paul Nurse,7 has an advisory board made up entirely of scientists or people with a science background. Most of the Research Councils themselves, who disburse funding on behalf of the taxpayer, suffer from the same problem. 8For how many other sectors would this lack of independent input be tolerated?

As an example, when the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority was created in 1991, its rules stipulated that the Chair, Deputy Chair and at least half of HFEA members needed to come from outside medicine or science. The group currently includes several people who have undergone IVF – people who are directly affected by the technology that the authority regulates.9

This is a strong first step towards making funding and regulatory bodies truly representative of the population. While it has been good to see more diversity, we need to take this further. Key decisions on scientific innovation should always involve public dialogue, and it should be the responsibility of such boards to ensure that this happens.

Scientists themselves stand to benefit from this approach. For example, when it comes to making the case for a bigger role for science in society – whether that’s through government funding, industrial policy, education, or regulations – scientists themselves have something of a vested interest problem. Non-scientists could make the case far more effectively.

In 2015/16, science will get £5.8 billion in funding from the public purse. 10That’s around 0.8% of the total UK government budget, or £89.78 per person. 11Some have argued that this needs to increase to meet the investment made by other European countries12 but if, as a society, we want to continue funding scientific innovation, then we need the argument for it to be made by a broad range of people in our culture. Even to maintain current funding, the BSA believes that the scientific community needs to better reflect and represent the society that supports it.

It will come as little surprise to most people that professional scientists tend to be drawn from the upper echelons of British society. The path to becoming a scientist requires the type of education, funding, stability, and contacts that are less accessible to the less privileged. The ASPIRES report by King’s College London argues that a certain level of this ‘science capital’ is also necessary to simply participate in discussions about important issues in science.13

A scientific profession that looked more like the rest of the UK, and where a greater diversity of people knew scientists personally, should be something that we all aim for.

But, for the benefit of those who don’t rub shoulders with scientists, we also need to challenge the assumption that the study of science is primarily for the training of future experts. Although a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering states that one million engineers are needed by 2020 to meet the UK’s demands,14 we can’t let such figures instrumentalise education. The core aim of science education should be to ensure students leave school with the skills and confidence to discuss and shape scientific and technological advances in society, whatever their career choices.

One way to do this would be to stop segregating science into disciplines at school. In an age of inter-disciplinarity, studying physics, biology, and chemistry as supposedly separate subjects could be seen as an anachronism even for those going on to become scientists. But it’s perhaps even less helpful for those who we simply want to be members of a scientifically literate society; might a better route be having young people look at the science of, say, climate change, alongside its historical, geographic, and political elements?

Scientists can be as creative as Lionel Messi in football, or Tracey Emin in art, and science education needs to excite and enthuse. Students should be able to explore and probe the world around them, rather than learning by rote. Only then will they be able to appreciate the innate creativity of science.

Science needs to be seen as an exciting, evolving, and interactive part of our society, not an exalted profession led solely by modern-day sages. The purpose, direction, ethics, and sustainability of science and innovation have to be defined by society as a whole – but that can only happen if more people feel able to take part in such debates.

We’ve seen that 29 per cent of UK adults – 15 million people – want to have more of a say on decisions made about scientific issues.15 The aim of the British Science Association is to grow this number, and empower these people to do just that.

Science is arguably humanity’s greatest and best invention. To make the most of it, we must ensure that it belongs to all of us.

  1. According to Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index, 83% trust scientists to tell the truth, versus, for example, doctors (90%), journalists (22%) and politicians (16%). See: [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  2. According to NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey number 31. See ‘Proud to be British’:
  3. According to Ipsos MORI’s Public Attitudes to Science Survey, 2014. See p. 99:
  4. J. Gregory and S. Miller, Science In Public. New York: Basic Books, 2000, p.102.
  5. R. Horton, Second opinion. London: Granta Books, 2003.
  6. S. Funtowicz and J. Ravetz, . Science for the Post Normal Age. Environmental Science and Technology Library, 1995, pp.146-161.
  7. See: [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  8. Four out of seven have a large majority of scientists: BBSRC (94%), EPSRC (88%), MRC (79%), STFC (73%) [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  9. See: HFEA ‘Members of the Authority’: [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  10. See: BIS ‘Science and research budget allocations for financial year
  11. 2015/16 UK budget is £742 billion and population is 64.6 million. See: and [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  12. See: [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  13. See p. 7:
  14. See; [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  15. According to Ipsos MORI’s Public Attitudes to Science Survey, 2014. See p. 99:

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