We need the scientific equivalent of legal aid

Alice Bell is a campaigner, former academic and journalist

Knowledge is such a key part of the running of our society that, if we want an equal society, we need equality of access to science.

This isn’t an especially controversial position these days, and it’s why we worry about diversity in STEM, have fights over things like paywalls on journal articles, and dream up more and better ways to break down social and cultural barriers between scientists and other parts of society.

But progress is slow on all of these things. But even if it wasn’t, it is still not enough.

Imagine you’re worried about health and safety conditions at work. Or a company wants to frack near where you live. Or there’s a road being planned to be built near your kid’s school. Sometimes there is data you can get to help you understand your position, and potentially fight it. Sometimes there isn’t. And people with money to commission research are at an advantage.

Citizen science projects can and have helped in cases like these. There are some great examples of citizen science being used for health and safety at work, putting audiometers, aesthesiometers, spirometers and other equipment into the hands of union safety reps, unearthing evidence for widespread but previously hidden health problems in the process. More recently, there’s loads of citizen science work on air pollution. But all these projects still cost money, and not all research questions can be made to fit a citizen science approach.

Having a right to scientific advice – both in terms of helping you find and understand the science that’s already out there and, where relevant, commission new research – could be powerful equaliser.

This isn’t my idea, and it’s not new. I found it in an old 1972 copy of New Scientist, in an article by the late David Dickson. It might feel easy to dismiss as very 70s – we’ve pretty much cut standard legal aid, let alone trying to extend it – but it has a quietly subversive genius we’d do well to listen to.

As a start, universities could set up pro bono centres where grad students and staff could offer time to the local community. UCL’s engineering exchange offers one model for such an initiative. This might also have the added benefit of helping build relationships between research centres and groups they currently struggle to reach, even possibly shifting some cultural norms within universities too.

But ultimately, we need something of the size that it would need state funding. Which is why – in the name of truth, and equal access to that truth – the scientific community should also be joining their colleagues in the legal sector to push to reverse cuts to legal aid, and then extend it to include scientific advice too.

Alice Bell is Head of Campaign Communications at the climate change charity, 10:10. As an academic, Alice was Head of Public Engagement at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, and Course Director for an interdisciplinary course on climate change at Imperial College London, where she also lectured in science communication As a journalist, she launched How We Get to Next as editor, as well as writing for the Road to Paris blog, Open Democracy, the BBC, the Guardian, the Observer, Times, Times Higher, Research Fortnight, Red Pepper and Al Jazeera.

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