//What do the public believe and want on UK science and tech? Reflections on 10 years of Sciencewise, and over 50 public dialogues.

What do the public believe and want on UK science and tech? Reflections on 10 years of Sciencewise, and over 50 public dialogues.

Sciencewise has had a major impact on UK science and technology policy. The programme has helped government departments, research councils and scientific institutions explore challenging questions about the role of science and technology in the UK. Each dialogue engages a group of people recruited to reflect the UK population. 

With more than 50 dialogues under our belt over the past ten years, we have a vast repository of public views on the four themes that guide our work:

Over the coming weeks, we will publish four reports which summarise what we have learned about the values and attitudes publics bring to these four questions. Each report will be the focus of a Sciencewise blog. For now, though, we want to look at what is common across dialogues: what values and views do the public reiterate, regardless of the specific theme being addressed in a project?

Yes to new technologies when the benefits are clear, and we’re ok with taking some risks. But no to innovation for profit alone, or ‘for the sake of it’.

The impact of innovations in science and technology on inequalities is a constant theme in Sciencewise dialogues. People return again and again to the distribution of benefits and harms. They know that innovations can bring great social benefits, but they also know that these same innovations can perpetuate or exacerbate existing inequalities. They want technologies to be affordable, accessible and available to all. Where this is not possible, they want potential harms to be offset by other benefits.

Participants support the implementation of new technologies when the social benefits are clear, and are more willing to accept some risk when this is the case. But where benefits are limited to those who can afford it, or when the main consequence of an innovation is to bump up the profits of a private company, people are far less comfortable with supporting the development of new and emerging science and technology. When social benefits are apparent, though, people still want to make sure that planning for unintended consequences is carried out. 

People don’t like innovation that appears to be ‘for the sake of it’. They value the natural world and are nervous about technical solutions being privileged when alternatives are available, especially when these solutions are being used to address a problem which is an unintended consequence of a previous technological ‘advance’. But they’re not anti-technology or anti-science: where the impact of natural solutions does not match the scale of the problem (for example, curing illness or reducing CO2 in the atmosphere), people are open to more innovation. 

We want regulation that works, and personal choice matters.

Regulation should have teeth. People want strong, effective and independent regulation of science and technology research and implementation to ensure their interests are protected and that individuals and organisations are held accountable when they step outside agreed lines.  

Not everyone will want to embrace new technologies. Dialogue participants emphasise the importance of choice and control. Individuals should have access to good information, and support (and maybe incentives) to change their behaviour, if this is appropriate.  But the final say about adopting – or not – new solutions belongs to an individual. 

Some key assumptions – that we have public good at heart, and only safe innovations will be rolled out.

There are assumptions underlying these themes, which are also evident across dialogues.

The first is that scientific research and innovation is done for the public good. This is defined slightly differently, depending on the dialogue topic, but the basic assumption is that the public should see some positive outcome from innovations in science and technology. Public benefits might be widely felt – for example better health, higher living standards or wellbeing, or a more sustainable environment. But participants also see public good in cases where a small number of people might benefit – for example, the children and families affected by mitochondrial disease. 

A second assumption is that technology and innovations developed through research will be rolled out only if they can be proven to be safe and effective. If there is any doubt about the safety, or about whether or not the solution will work, as a minimum people would like to see more research undertaken until these doubts can be addressed and seek reassurance that this will be the case. 

A final word: as people gain more insight into how technologies are developed, how scientific research is carried out and how these inform policy decisions, they want to see sustained public  education and engagement on these issues. It’s not enough simply for the right decision to be made on behalf of the public. It has to be made with the public having a say on decisions that matter to our technological future.

Read our synthesis of insights from 50+ Sciencewise public dialogues here.