Although all of these facets of her career would make for a thrilling session, it was Ottoline’s work with policy makers that particularly interested us. She began by describing her work with the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, which works to “make a more porous interface between science and civil servants”. For the last six years, she has also served on the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, “a very interesting body that looks at the policies that drive behaviour in scientific research, for instance, the huge rush into biofuel research that meant the right paths weren't always chosen'. She is also active in the Royal Society's Science Policy Centre, whose work encompasses “a huge portfolio of projects”, including comprehensive reports on topical issues. Although the Centre works closely with the Government, often reacting to Government calls for information, Ottoline stresses that “the independence of the Royal Society is crucial to deliver in this space. This doesn't mean not taking input from the Government to what we should do - if this work can be useful - as long as what we say is independent”.
The audience were especially keen to hear of Ottoline's experiences serving on Parliamentary Select Committees, particularly one on the topic of Genetically Modified crops. “It's quite intimidating as it is set up as a jury with a horseshoe of MPs in front of you but once it gets going, you're just doing your job”. And is there likely to be a change in the near future regarding the Government's current reluctance to engage in GM technology? “There might be. The Select Committee was quite supportive of a shift toward a new approach, and on top of that, many policy makers do not want to be seen to be dictated to by Europe.”
When asked if she found it frustrating that scientific research doesn't always drive policy, Ottoline was frankly realistic. “Science is only one line of evidence in evidence-based policy and it is completely legitimate that other factors drive policy. This includes political expediency - what actions would be good for poll ratings? But it IS frustrating when scientific evidence is abused to support certain policies. Complete transparency should be the basis of a policy, not 'fudging' to make all the evidence say the same thing”.
The discussion moved on to how science could be better communicated to the public - should jargon be jettisoned to make science more accessible? “There is too much emphasis that science is complicated and difficult. We need to deconstruct the idea that science is really hard and most people can't understand it and that scientists are 'special' people. I have a big problem with TV coverage of science - it is very dumbed down and increases the anxiety people have that science is really hard. Perhaps we need something more like The Great British Bake Off where random members of the public come in and do experiments?” After all, argues Ottoline, everybody performs science every day, whether they realise it or not. She gave the example of choosing the best route to get to work depending on whether it was raining, you had to visit the shops, if you had a lot to carry, etc. “Somehow we have built a system where science is done by boffins” she said. "The answer is not to dumb down but to bring people in".
Does the problem stem from the education system? "I have a big problem with how science is taught in schools" she said. "There is even a separate part of the curriculum called 'How science is done' - this should be integrated with the rest. Most of it is taught as a set of facts you have to memorise, but there is no such thing as a scientific fact. Data is data and forms the facts, science is the interpretation of it and that can change." It can be very tempting to simply blame the teachers but according to Ottoline "many teachers would love to do a better job but they are constrained by a focus too much on grades and not on a broader education".
With that in mind, she encouraged the audience to get involved in public outreach and policy activities. Apparently select committees are very keen for more early career researchers to respond to calls for evidence, especially as they tend to be more passionate and have less demands on their time than their supervisors! However, she urged us to consider the viewpoint of the public before simply wading in with our facts and knowledge. "One of the things that messes up science in policy is not understanding how people think" she argues. For instance, researchers would make more progress in allaying the public's fears about GM crops if they understood why exactly people are anxious about the technology." Ironically, most people usually want things to be better, they just have different ideas on how to get there”. All th emore reason, for young researchers to get out there and start talking!
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/