He started with a picture of a news headline from 2000, "GM crops under fire again". Important word is "again". A problem that we couldn't crack, getting the message out about genetic manipulation and what it actually was. Or more importantly what it wasn't! As a geneticist by training, this is particularly close to my heart. About the same time, an important report from the House of Lords Science and Technology committee came out, and one of the recommendations was that direct dialogue with the public about research should be embedded and the norm, not an add on.
Since then, there have been huge advances in public engagement in Universities.
However we haven't got everything right, and a recent report in Feb 2015 about genetic techniques for improving crops, is still recommending the need to reframe public understanding of this area.
A major turning point was the publication of this document
Which made the argument that we needed to move to a new way of thinking, moving from a public understanding of science, ie one way communication, to a dialogue about research, not just science.
Another important policy intervention was the REF where public engagement was included as acceptable impact. 6975 impact case studies were submitted, and 447 of them are about public engagement, vast majority in arts and humanities.
In terms of the future, he suggested that we have moved towards a focus on civic cultural and community, and away from controversy. Perhaps we should clarify that we have two distinct missions:
Engagement and impact
Responsible research and innovation.
And, if we are going to tackle controversial topics, we may have to let people outside the academy in to our research governance.
Finally he used the recent example of the approval of the use of mitochondrial DNA in fertility treatments as a huge success story for public engagement. It would be difficult to imagine it happening in 2000. An interesting comment from one of our fertility experts in the audience was that it was the result of a 6 year dialogue which had resulted in getting the journalists on side.
In conclusion the message was that we need to get away from public engagement being about the "understanding of science" to the "enthusiasm for research"
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