words by Gina Brennan
Public engagement in the sciences is vital on both a societal and individual level, to create support for new and important projects and to allow the public to trust the sciences and follow career paths in the science sector. The government plans to increase public engagement with the sciences, but risks creating a divide in the areas of the public it is engaging due to its failure to recognise obstructions to engagement faced by disadvantaged people. A divide emerges, and the dangers of this divide are made clear. The government must recognise the barriers faced by people from deprived backgrounds, and implement plans to negate them.
A major success story of government policy creating trust in science through a two-way dialogue with the public and researchers is Sciencewise. Sciencewise is a government funded programme that holds public dialogue exercises in science and technology research to inform policy making. Dialogue from Sciencewise projects has directly influenced the development of policy around science techniques, helping the public to feel informed and involved. Additionally, Sciencewise excels in finding people from diverse backgrounds, with lower socioeconomic groups making up the majority of those involved and quotas for gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic grade, and working status designed. This is crucial, as it is established that people from more deprived backgrounds find engaging with sciences more difficult than their more privileged peers. In order to rectify this, effort must be made to include people from working class backgrounds in science public dialogue.
However, divides begin to become clear even with Sciencewise projects. The location of engagement projects is important, with many missing out much of the north of England. With northern areas home to the majority of deprived regions in the UK it seems an oversight for them not to be involved. The north is already alienated from the scientific sector of the UK; The research and development (R&D) sector in the south east of England receives more than twice the monetary investment of the north west, and over nine times the investment of the north east. Regional divides in sciences must be negated, not amplified, by government-led engagement, and so it is paramount that public dialogue takes place in an accessible way to those in less scientific-intensive regions.
The less affluent are less likely to think that public dialogue makes a difference to policy, perhaps discouraging a culture of engagement in disadvantaged people. This lack of engagement is apparent in the attitudes of public from more deprived backgrounds; it has been found that they have less trust in scientists and science regulation. Illustrating the dangerous effects this distrust can have, a survey found that people on lower incomes are less willing to take the coronavirus vaccine and that this gap has widened over the pandemic from October 2020 to February 2021. Further engagement with groups on lower incomes, including engagement that should have taken place during vaccine development, would have created more confidence. The doubt around science people from deprived backgrounds have is a product of the failings of current public engagement efforts. Rather than villainising the working class for their mistrust, as the media is prone to do, more efforts must be made to engage and reassure them.
However, there are currently many issues surrounding the accessibility of science to people with deprived backgrounds. Fundamental conceptions of science are skewed, being viewed as ‘narrow’ and ‘not for us’ by families from deprived backgrounds. It is paramount these ideas are tackled quickly, but the government has not recognised this issue in any plans for increasing public engagement. Additionally, social media is now the most common avenue of dialogue between researchers and the public. While this may seem widely accessible, it is fact that internet access is far less available to those on lower incomes. The so-called ‘digital divide’ in science engagement can only have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as exercises normally held in-person have moved online. This creates yet another barrier to those on lower incomes engaging with the sciences. Despite its promises of furthering public engagement, the UK government’s negligence in providing internet access to disadvantaged people is complicit in excluding them from science engagement.
The availability of careers in the science field would also increase engagement. However, discrepancies in science education culminate in students from non-privileged backgrounds being less likely to study at top universities that the science sector generally recruits from. Additionally, it is documented that students from more deprived backgrounds find it more difficult to gain experience through internships and placements, oftentimes necessary for careers in the science sector. Furthermore, ever increasing tuition and rent costs can discourage lower income students from coming to university. If the field seems out of reach, it is obvious people will not bother to engage with science. The government must recognise that the barriers to higher education and employment are also barriers to science engagement. By failing to provide basic accessibility to education and experience the government is failing to encourage science engagement.
The government, while not specifically outlining how it will engage disadvantaged students with a science career, provides the case study of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) Oxfordshire Advanced Skills Centre. The government plans to work with UKAEA to appeal to and support disadvantaged apprentices. While in theory this plan seems excellent, its transparency is very apparent. This centre is based in Culham in Oxfordshire, an area in the least deprived 10-20% of England for income and one of the most highly funded areas for R&D in the UK. If the government plans to use it to attract disadvantaged people into R&D apprenticeships and professions, it is evident that it should have acknowledged the regional inequalities in the UK and placed it in a more socioeconomically and scientifically deprived region, such as the north east. This would have encouraged more people in a severely deprived area to engage with the sciences. Placed where it is, the centre will have minimal impact on socioeconomic inequality in science careers, and will subsequently not significantly encourage further engagement from disadvantaged people. While the government has made efforts to increase public engagement with the sciences, basic barriers to engagement have not been addressed. Despite the obvious and pressing need to further engage the publics from deprived backgrounds and lower incomes in science the government has not published a plan to achieve this, nor included it in other plans in any substantial way. In failing to recognise the need to engage the disadvantaged members of the public and implement a plan to achieve this, the government is implicit in the exclusion of the working class from the sciences. This has negative effects for both society as a whole and working class individuals, feeling barred from the sciences and as a result mistrustful. This is down to the government’s failure in engaging the working class; if the government afforded the working class the same opportunities and inclusion it does the more affluent, a very different story would emerge. The government must be held accountable, and disadvantaged people should not take blame for the government’s inadequacies.