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August 04, 2010

Science, science, everywhere… British people really care

By David Kent

While many would argue that inspiring discovery and critical examination are losing the battle to fact regurgitation and grades in school systems everywhere, it seems that the British populous still appears to think that science is much more interesting than do most North Americans. I’ve written about how the UK has an excellent set of resources for equipping the public, and politicians in particular, with high quality scientific information. Combined, these resources give multiple media from which differently inclined learners can pick up scientific information.  A few great examples are listed below:

Café Scientifique was started in the UK and has been since picked up by numerous countries. It is a remarkably simple concept involving scientists coming out of the lab and into a pub to chat informally with the public about scientific issues. Cambridge’s version has put them online in collaboration with The Naked Scientists, who, incidentally, are another great example of science outreach for the public with their popular radio show.  

The British Royal Society, now 350 years old, is an impressive consolidation of informationresearch support, and policy advice and should be held as a model for Canada’s Royal Society to engage the public and Government.  

The UK also boasts a series of science festivals, huge organizations of specialized scientists (>80,000 members), dedicated charities and foundations, excellent topical science workshops for school children, and science events in libraries and museums.

While Canada does have many great programs like Let’s Talk Science, ActuaCurioCity, innovative web movements as we saw with the Webby winning Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and excellent radio and television programs, they are vastly outnumbered by such programs in the UK – especially from the public broadcasting organisation, the BBC

In saying all of this, I must be fair to disclose that the majority of my time in the UK has been in Cambridge, London, and Edinburgh so the regional picture may differ substantially, but the one thing that certainly stands clear is the level of science awareness in the national Parliament. The UK even had a Science Party run candidates in the last election. Even though it is still not ideally equipped with science advice and information, politicians here in the UK are light years ahead due to an extremely active and well received community of scientists. 

The litany of science-based organizations could easily consume an entire article, but readers of this blog will likely appreciate a run down of the information that is transmitted regarding stem cells. 

When it comes to advice given to Government, the first port of call is the arms-length Council for Science and Technology, whose previous incarnation published first a high quality briefing on stem cells for Parliamentarians in 2002 and another important report on regulations of stem cell therapies in 2004. Furthermore, there have been debates in, and reports from the House of Lords discussing many of the ethical and social concerns with a pretty reasonable grasp of the main scientific issues at play (i.e.: the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cell research and therapeutic vs. reproductive cloning). 

Perhaps most innovative is an program established by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills called ScienceWise Dialogue, which held a two-year public dialogue project discussing issues in stem cell research and produced a remarkably detailed report that gives an overview of Britons’ opinions on stem cell research.   

While this information is surely available from the scientific community in many countries, the British public and their politicians seem to be more willing to lend an ear. Perhaps this is due to the hyperactivity of the public engagement in the sciences or the long and storied history of British-led scientific discoveries, or perhaps it simply has to do with building an infrastructure of organizations and scientific adviser positions to get scientists and policy makers in the same room at the same time.  

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