Babraham scientists debating the big issues
The Babraham Institute (BI) has run its first public dialogue event with assistance from dialogue specialists Ipsos MORI. This dialogue project is co-funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Sciencewise, the UK's national centre for public dialogue in policy-making involving science and technology issues.
Two workshops brought forty-four participants together with a group of researchers from the Institute to discuss the importance of fundamental biological research and its impact on society. The dialogue project was designed to provide BI with a platform for deliberative debate and discussion. The Institute’s senior management team timed the exercise to coincide with the next round of science strategy setting for 2017-2022. Indeed the aim is for the dialogue exercise to inform both the future science and public engagement strategies.
To start off, members of the public were presented with an introduction to the Babraham Institute and heard from the Institute’s Director, Professor Michael Wakelam. In groups, participants were then invited to comment on a strategic research area – ageing research - posing the questions (among others); “what does healthy ageing mean to me?” and “what is important to the public when it comes to understanding health?”. Ipsos MORI facilitators allowed BI’s scientists to reflect on public perceptions and understand both the concerns for and expectations of research in this field.
In a later session, participants had a chance to hear from researchers directly, before being taken through a series of exercises and activities designed to summarise key research projects and areas of new and developing science. Facilitated discussions enabled our researchers to assist the public in understanding some of the more complex issues and also provided them with the opportunity to listen to the public’s views about their research and future plans. Participants stated that: “Scientists explained the various research projects in a way I was able to understand and feel I could contribute”.
When asked what was most interesting about the day, one comment is particularly compelling: “Finding how it [the science] works, because it's not that easy. [It is important] that we as tax payers pay for something good because it’s usually negative things”.
The project is being evaluated by an independent evaluator, Icarus Ltd, to ensure that materials and methods are appropriate and that the overall objectives are met. Early analysis has showed that 90% of participants having taken part in the workshops are more willing to take an interest in the science and/or healthy ageing research.
According to Linden Fradet, Head of Public Engagement for the Institute: “This project has already delivered huge benefit to the Institute. The dialogue has not only given researchers the time and space to explain the importance of their science but also given us the opportunity to reflect on the public’s perceptions of science and scientists. As a result we are already thinking about doing things differently especially in terms of our future public engagement activities.
One researcher commented: “The participants appeared genuinely thrilled to be given the opportunity to learn, and - more importantly - to discuss the topics we presented. Before this day, many had the perception that all scientists were secretive and eccentric; this day helped to rectify some misconceptions. Most TV programmes and newspaper articles on scientific topics are too complex, so the general public will not even try to understand them. Public dialogue events like this reach a proportion of the public, which doesn’t actively seek scientific knowledge, but is fascinated by it from afar.” Understanding the general public’s views about our science is very important.
The Babraham Institute will reconvene both groups later in the year to explore in greater detail some of the topics introduced and to probe further into the public’s view of the research carried out in a publicly-funded research institute.