'We would like everybody to see science in the same way that people see music, or sport or the arts': The British Science's Association's Katherine Mathieson on the charity's defining mission.
Since taking over as CEO of The British Science Association in 2016 Katherine Mathieson has been very busy indeed. Not content with simply overseeing the charity's many, far-reaching public engagement programmes, she has now launched a new business plan that could prove to be the most ambitious of the organisation's 200 year history. In this episode of Research Comms Mathieson talks about why it's so vital that we transform science's role in society, what's driving the BSA's focus on diversity, and how the organisation is harnessing the power of digital to connect with hard-to-reach groups in their homes.
The British Science Association is an organisation that plays a prominent role on the science scene over here in the UK. It's been around for almost 200 years now, since it was founded in 1831 as the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Its focus back then was on the communication of science amongst scientists but since then it’s evolved considerably and now it’s a far more outward looking organisation that seeks to engage the public with science through a variety of programmes, such as British Science Week and the British Science Festival, as well as public engagement campaigns both offline and digital.
I had a fascinating conversation with Katherine at BSA's headquarters in London. As you’d imagine, given her role, she's a passionate advocate of the importance of public engagement with science, so we spoke about why it matters and about the critical role that diversity has to play in science communication. We also chatted about public debates around emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, how digital media can be used to reach under-served audiences and we also spoke a lot about the BSA’s ambitious new mission to transform the relationship that millions of people in the UK have with science over the next couple of years.
What's the driving force behind the British Science Association?
The British Science Association is a charity who has a vision of science being at the heart of culture and society, so we would like everybody to see science in the way that people see music or sport or the arts or other areas of human endeavor where there are a bunch of people who have a paid job you don't have a professional identity within those things and that's fine they're all getting on with their thing and then the rest of us if we're interested we feel very very able to sort of reach out and participate you know we can play sport we can follow a team we can campaign for sport to be done differently to be part of the Olympics or for women's football to be televised or whatever we care about in connection to sport we don't feel the need to have permission from somebody to participate and the same with music you know we're not overly influenced by our school experience of music we're influenced by our own tastes and music by our own experience of music and we would like science to be more like that so more part of everyday human culture rather than as is often the case now seen as an activity where professionals kind of busy themselves by taking charge of all the science behind a closed door somewhere.
Tell us about the BSA's exciting new plan for public engagement...
We're in a really exciting phase at the moment. The vision that we have now of wanting science to be seen as a fundamental part of culture and society, we've had that for a few years. We did a big strategic review in 2013 and that's the way that we've reformulated our charitable objectives, and the way that we understand what that means has changed as we've adopted that vision, so we've looked underneath and peeled back a few layers and where we are now is that we're able to make a very public commitment saying that the kind of science engagement that happens between people who have a very strong or positive relationship with science, that's important and valuable and fantastic and we have done a lot a over the over recent decades to shape what that looks like and we're very proud of that, but for the next three years we want to have a really firm focus on people who don't have a strong relationship with science at the moment; so the three-quarters of the population who have an inactive or 'science is not for me' relationship with science. And we want to really work hard to understand the needs and the interests of those groups and so all of our program activities are being thought about in the light of that model and that commitment, and that commitment is also a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
We know that groups of people who have a strong kind of identity or relationship with science are not necessarily representative of the wider population, that many of the dimensions of bias and lack of privilege that operate in other spheres also operate for science and so we want to take a very proactive stance to trying to address that, which we know means changing the BSA itself as well as our activities and the way we think about things. We don't necessarily know all of the steps that we might take but for us it's quite a public commitment to saying we're going to think about all of our core programs, the long-standing programs, the kind of flagship programs that we're often known for and that collectively we want those activities to over the life of this three-year business plan for 4 million people who currently have an inactive relationship with science to move into having a strong and engaged relationship with science or even a professional identity in science.
Why is it so important that we engage as many people as we can with science?
I think it's important for four reasons. One of them is to do with science and three of them are to do with people. We want the best possible science to be done, not just any old science and if we are not recruiting the talent from every corner of the globe then we are not doing the best science we can do. And we know that we can't possibly be recruiting the best talent from across the globe because we do not have a diverse group of people working in science at the moment. So, there's a very strong imperative around the kind of talent pipeline in science and the diversity of that pipeline and the kinds of people who end up working in science or not and that is very persuasive given the importance of science to the future economy of the UK and the kind of challenges we're trying to solve. You know, these challenges, the things that come out of the science labs and the research spaces are the things that will determine what kind of ageing and death we all have, they'll determine our future nutrition, they'll determine all sorts of things about our lives, so we want to do the best possible science that can be done but there are other reasons as well for wanting more people to have a stronger connection to science, to see science as part of their culture.
One is for utility reasons. We all, in our everyday lives, make decisions based on science. We have to wade through the many facts available on social media to try and make decisions about how best to arrange vaccinations for our children, or what kind of transport is going to be best for our families, or where in the world we want to live, for daily decisions that are underpinned by science and it's not trivial to wade through the mass of information that comes our way. The thing that's happened most recently around breast cancer screening, the statistics that underpin the media story for the breast cancer screening mishap are hard to understand. Did I suffer, if I'm a woman in that age group, by missing the screening? Or did I avoid unnecessary harm? There's no way of knowing as an individual woman, so the more that people have access to a kind of scientific way of critical thinking and an understanding of the principles that scientists bring to thinking about those hard things will be very useful in everyday life.
There's also reasons about democracy. The decisions we take about science, the decisions we take through politics, through the levers of democracy are often decisions about science. What's the right energy mix for the UK? How should we manage our food supply chains for optimal nutrition but also affordability? These are all questions that relate to the work that science does and so if only people who already like science or are interested in science take part in those bigger societal decisions then we're not making very good effective decisions. We're not taking decisions that have everyone's interests at heart. And finally one more reason, science can be delightful. It can be wonderful, it can be an amazing kind of cultural experience and in the same way that we say that there is a wide and broad entitlement to the arts and those forms of culture there should also be a wide entitlement to the culture of science.
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Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in the communication of research in science, the social sciences and the humanities.