If you are passionate about engaging a wider public with science and engineering (as I am) then two exciting things have happened last month that bode very well for the future. On 7 December all the major funders of UK research signed up to a Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. As this was clearly a significant announcement about communicating complex subjects to a wide variety of people, I thought it was slightly ironic that they would choose to use a term I had never heard of before. On investigation, I discovered that a ‘concordat’ can be a ‘signed written agreement between two or more parties to perform some action’ or a ‘treaty regulating church affairs signed by the Pope’. I am assuming this is the former rather than the latter – and hopeful of the phrase ‘to perform some action’ in particular.
On 1 December the inaugural meeting of the Science Advisory Council for Wales was held. This group has been established to advise the new Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales, Professor John Harries. It is a group of scientists, engineers and industry representatives so clever that I have to admit to being slightly in awe when in the room with them. My task is to represent the field of public engagement and outreach in Wales. It is heartening to know that the government has recognised that this is an issue that needs a voice at the table (along with the Nobel prize winners and industry champions who bring millions of pounds of business into Wales).
Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects are all crucial areas of research since they raise the standard of living for people all over the world. It is widely acknowledged that countries with a strong STEM culture – where many students choose STEM subjects and many STEM-based industries are based – are economically more successful than those who fall behind in this area.
This is something that Wales needs to take seriously. Even the UK as a whole is falling behind countries such as China in producing new generations of scientists and engineers. With the recent reports on Welsh school students performing worse than their English counterparts we can only assume that we need to do something quite dramatic if we want to inspire and engage the next generation of Nobel prize winners and industry innovators.
The announcement that students entering Higher Education in Wales will not pay the newly agreed higher tuition fees (even if studying in England) is a promising move. But can Wales really afford to subsidise English Universities whilst having their own budgets cut to pay for it?
What strengths does Wales have that we can build on to make us stand out across Europe and the world? There was much discussion about this at the advisory meeting and a few key things emerged. Wales is small enough for multiple institutions to work well collaboratively. That could mean more opportunity to play in the big league for science funding and innovation. However, this local collaboration mustn’t mean we only look inward for partnership opportunities. Science operates on a global stage and Welsh scientists must get themselves known across the world to build more international collaborations.
In the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff I often hear about teams working on telescopes with colleagues all over the world. It isn’t a new idea but it is something that needs to be encouraged even more. The most successful research groups and industries we have in Wales work regularly at an international level. In turn this can generate inspiring results and products that can inspire new generations to turn to science.
With both the Advisory Council and the new Concordat for Public Engagement I hope the result is some tangible action. For years we have heard that Research Councils want to see public engagement as a vital aspect of the work done by researchers. Yet last year the Engineering and Physical Sciences research Council – one of the largest UK funders of STEM research – cut its dedicated Public Engagement funding stream.
The intention is to ensure all researchers “embed the public engagement work into their research grants”. However, this will mean many, many scientists having small bits of money to do not very much – and perhaps not do it very well. If we want to raise the quality of public engagement happening across the UK then it has to be acknowledged that it does cost money to do it well. Especially in these economic times, it is a hard balance to decide how much money should go on the core research, and how much should be spent consulting with, or explaining to, the tax payer about the research being done, but both aspects are vital.
These are just some of the issues that are likely to arise as the Council moves forward with recommendations for a new Science Policy for Wales. We’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the topic and I’ll keep you posted as we progress.