Public understanding of science: lessons from the UK experience

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This paper offers an analysis of trends in policy on the public understanding of science in the UK over the last 15 years. It traces the interaction of scientists, social scientists and the public in the move from early ‘deficit model’ conceptions of public understanding to current positions in which the public are seen as active participants in democratic and personal decisions about science. It argues that an early emphasis on a public in need of information and education and on the media as antagonistic to science was misplaced, and that it was instead the scientists who had much to learn about the media and the public.

Introduction to the UK public understanding of science movement

In the UK, public understanding of science as a political and academic issue is about 15 years old. We have a long history of science popularisation, and over the centuries we have seen changing and varied motives among the popularisers, as well as various publics with various motives for consuming these popularisations. Science has been used as a tool for subjugation as well as liberation, and been seen as both an uplifting and enlightening force and one that is socially and personally destructive, challenging traditional beliefs and what it means to be human [1]. Scientific institutions have tended to define themselves socially, and as authorities, by setting themselves apart from the general public. Scientific knowledge is special knowledge and special powers rest with those who have it.

Scientists who popularise have similarly been seen at different times as heroes of the working class and as the agents of social order; and as loyal ambassadors and as betraying their own. Where there has been an ideological impetus for public understanding of science, it has tended to come from the political left, from scientists who believe that scientific knowledge can enlighten, liberate and empower all people as citizens; however most popularisations by scientists have been self-serving: historically, scientists have rushed to share their science with the public at times when they feel that their own enterprise is under threat.

Popularisation does however place a commodity in society which many people value, enjoy and use. Scientists have as much right to as any other profession to promote themselves and their work. But claims that the public are uniquely the intended beneficiaries of public-understanding-of-science activities have often been disingenuous. In this paper, I suggest that for a long time in the UK we took for granted the key player in the public understanding of science process: the public. Scientists, with their own agendas and from their position of relative power, failed to take account of the society to which they were looking for support.

Public-understanding-of-science policy in the UK

In 1985, a report called The Public Understanding of Science was published by the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific institution [2]. The early 1980s were the time of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, characterised by high unemployment, reductions in public spending, privatisation of essential services, a move towards a service economy and widespread labour unrest. Scientists were feeling the financial squeeze, and many were leaving the country for jobs abroad. British science was under threat. The Royal Society brought together a committee of distinguished scientists who believed that the root of the problem was that society as a whole simply did not value science.

The committee’s task was ‘to review the nature and extent of public understanding of science in the United Kingdom and its adequacy for an advanced democracy; to review the mechanisms for effecting public understanding of science and technology and its role in society; [and] to consider the constraints upon the processes of communication and how they might be overcome’. Among the conclusions drawn were that everyone should have some understanding of science, ideally provided initially at school, and that this would help them make decisions. The report urged parliamentarians to seek advice on scientific issues, and suggested that industrialists needed a better understanding of science if the UK was to remain competitive. The report emphasised the need for more science in the media, and argued that ‘scientists must learn to communicate to the public … and … consider it their duty to do so.’

One result of this report was the formation of COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. COPUS is still administered by the Royal Society in cooperation with other prestigious scientific institutions, and has set up projects such as a science book prize, grants for public-understanding-of-science activities, and media training for scientists. The Royal Society report also prompted a research programme, run by the Economic and Social Research Council, involving researchers from the social sciences.

In 1988, a survey was undertaken in Britain to measure scientific knowledge and attitudes among laypeople. The survey asked about the content and processes of science, and included a ‘knowledge quiz’ on matters such as whether the Sun goes round the Earth or the Earth round the Sun, whether insects have eight legs, and whether radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. It was decided that the results would be published in Nature, to ensure that readers would actually understand the significance of the data. The public did not score well. While they claimed to be very interested in science, levels of knowledge were poor: 70 per cent believed natural vitamins to be better than synthetic ones, and 30 per cent thought that humans and dinosaurs had co-existed. Over one third believed that the Sun circles round the Earth, and 46 per cent had no idea whether DNA was to do with stars, rocks, computers or living things [3]. The data seemed to confirm the scientists’ view that most people had very little idea about science. The public was characterised as suffering from a ‘deficit’ of scientific information — a deficit which, given the apparent public interest, could and should be remedied. This gave empirical support to the Royal Society’s earlier recommendations that the solution to the problem lay in the effective communication of science to non-scientists.

Since then, public understanding of science has become a matter for government policy. In 1993, a White Paper, Realising Our Potential, stated: ‘the aim is to achieve a cultural change: better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the scientific community, industry and government departments’. One means of achieving this would be by improving scientists’ skills in communicating with the public. Since 1994, a government-sponsored ‘Science, Engineering and Technology’ activity week has brought science to the attention of many people, not least government ministers.

Around the political rationales for public understanding of science were other arguments that answered more directly the question of what was in it for the public. For example, science is a great cultural achievement of humankind, and we can all enjoy and value it in the same way as we might read a great book. Other arguments are practical: people can use scientific knowledge to solve everyday problems. But how these outcomes might be achieved through flinging apparently randomly chosen scientific information at unknown publics was never clear. Very early on, a researcher produced the survey’s ‘knowledge quiz’ at a conference and challenged delegates to think of democratic, practical or cultural reasons why anyone should know the answers to such questions — it was a tough task. Nevertheless, initiatives in public understanding of science have been mainly initiatives in science communication: they have consisted of finding means to deliver scientific information to laypeople, and of training scientists on how to get their messages across.

Academic research

This activity and political talk has taken place largely separately of academic research. While academics have investigated how and why people use different knowledge in their lives, policy-makers have continued to rely on the principle that scientific facts are worth having, and have concerned themselves mainly with how those facts might be communicated. There has been very little reflection on the content or purpose of the messages. Only very recently have policy-makers looked to critical scholarship. Some criticism is fundamental: some scholars are not convinced that public understanding of science needs improving, and are not sure who, if anyone, would benefit if it were.

The public-understanding-of-science movement in the UK has not spent much time articulating its own understanding of science: science is taken as given. Nor has the public been examined too closely — the assumption is that we all know who they are. Understanding has also been neglected, though ‘understanding’ has clearly if tacitly been equated with ‘knowledge’ — factual knowledge of the content of science. Understanding is also equated with ‘appreciation’ — of the scientific enterprise, and of particular innovations. Putting these two equations together gives ‘knowledge = appreciation’. It is clear that many in the scientific and policy communities in the UK who want to further the public understanding of science are really concerned with increasing the public’s appreciation of science. Politicians reacting to public resistance to scientific developments — recently, genetically modified food crops — have argued that once the public knows the scientific facts, they will welcome the scientific innovation.

This interpretation ignores research done by social scientists on how people’s knowledge informs their attitudes. This work indicates that while people with very low levels of factual knowledge tend to become more positive about science when they learn a bit more about it, once they gain more knowledge they tend to start thinking more critically. The more knowledgeable people are about science, the more polarised their attitudes become [4]. Thus telling people more about genetically modified food crops is as likely to produce protest as support. If we are trying to enhance democracy this is surely a good thing: an efficient opposition is essential. If, on the other hand, we are trying to sell genetically modified crops by teaching people genetics, we may be disappointed

Another misapprehension was that knowledge dictates particular behaviour. It was considered a great success that the vast majority of the public in the UK knew that sunbathing could cause skin cancer: the inference was that people would necessarily protect themselves from the sun. But a research group from China who repeated the UK survey in their country in 1993 found that the Chinese, a nation of smokers, are very well aware that smoking can cause lung cancer and heart disease [5]. The question was asked: if the people know this, why do they smoke? But the majority of Chinese scratch a living in rural poverty and die young by Western standards: why would they worry about the risks from the cheap, pleasant, sociable activity of smoking? These respondents teach us not only that knowledge does not necessarily imply behaviour, but also that understanding the context in which knowledge is used is vital to understanding its impact in people’s lives.

In the UK, there is evidence to suggest that people acquire, or are prepared to accept, only the information they need for their own particular circumstances, and little more. Even people working in highly complex (and potentially dangerous) technological environments learn only what they need to fulfil their responsibilities, and they trust their colleagues’ expertise in the rest of the process. Laypeople’s understanding often remains specific to the circumstances which produced it, and is not transferred to other situations. For example, people with long-term illnesses may become expert in their particular disease, though very little of what they know may be applicable to other diseases or other people.

Thus public knowledge, which is sometimes called ‘lay expertise’, tends to be specific or concrete rather than general or abstract — the opposite of how scientists see their knowledge of science. But the expertise of scientists, who work with general laws, may be inappropriate in specific circumstances. For example, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, farming restrictions imposed in Northern England were based on what scientists thought was the universal behaviour of caesium in soil, but the research had been done on clay soil, whereas the local soil is peaty. In this case local people could have helped scientists plan appropriate measures; instead, they felt that the ‘experts’ were dismissive of local knowledge based on particular experience rather than on general scientific principles.

Studies like these have led to a ‘contextual’ approach to public understanding of science. Instead of peddling factual prescriptions, scientists should work with the particular problems and expertises of the people, and tailor their advice accordingly — the task is less one of propaganda and more one of negotiation. This is clearly a more difficult task, but it is one that allows scientists and the public to work together as citizens of a scientific culture.

In some cases, however, the ‘making up the deficit’ approach can be useful. How to avoid disease is a topic on which modern science has shown itself to be often more effective than local wisdom. In Britain recently, publicity about the value of folic acid during pregnancy turned the unheard-of into common knowledge. But much of the public-understanding-of-science effort in Britain has not been informed by an appreciation of the cultural, religious, moral or traditional beliefs of the publics it pertains to serve. Particularly in areas of direct personal concern, such as health, food and sexual behaviour, these contexts can matter much more than the pronouncements of a scientist.

The ways in which laypeople negotiate scientific expertise have been explored in the UK by anthropologists and sociologists, who have found that often non-scientific knowledge works just as well as science, that a variety of authorities, only one of which is science, is brought to bear on problems in the real world, and that sometimes ignorance serves a valuable social function. In a world where we cannot all know everything, we have divided up responsibility for knowing. Plumbers know about plumbing, farmers know about farming, and scientists know about science. Because scientists know about science, the rest of us don’t have to know about it for ourselves. Where we trust the scientists to make decisions on our behalf, we do not need to know much about what they choose to do.

Which brings us to what seems now to be the heart of the matter: knowledge and trust are intimately intertwined. Where people clamour to know more about the science in contemporary Britain, it is invariably because scientists have betrayed this trust. The most significant recent case in the UK is of the Government’s response to the outbreak of ‘mad cow disease’ or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Instead of admitting to uncertainty in their scientific knowledge about the transmission of the disease and human susceptibility to it, government ministers and their scientific advisers insisted that British beef was safe. Now that we face a possible epidemic of the human form of BSE (the science is still uncertain), scientists and policy-makers face a crisis of its trust. Problems of trust are much more difficult than problems of knowledge.

Science and the media

The public-understanding-of-science movement in the UK has had an uneasy relationship with the mass media. On the one hand, the media are seen as a powerful force in the dissemination of scientific knowledge; and on the other hand, media practitioners have been characterised as prejudiced against science, ignorant of it, and as enthusiastically peddling caricatures and travesties.

Calls for ‘more’ science in the media seem to have been based on two misapprehensions. The first is that there is very little science in the UK media, and the second is that the impact of media science would be greater if there were more of it. Scientists argue for more column inches as if that would necessarily lead to a greater dissemination of knowledge and to more positive attitudes. This is ironic given that scientists complain about the poor quality of science reporting, but it also shows a rather naïve conception of media effect.

In this climate, a large-scale content analysis of science in British newspapers was funded by an independent research trust, and the results took many by surprise. There is a great deal of science in the British newspapers — indeed, it is hard to see how space could be found for much more. Science pervades many types of coverage, amounting to five per cent of British newsprint. Given that our newspapers are traditionally organs of domestic politics, and that the pace of science and its moderate, consensual and qualified approach to understanding the world does not equip it well to fight for news space, we should perhaps be puzzled by how much, rather than how little, science is in the UK news.

New audiences, new critics

Popularisation opens science communication to new voices and new audiences. One does not need to enjoy a distinguished scientific career in order to write a popular book. Indeed, the broad range of people writing about science has caused some disquiet among scientists who saw popularisation as a means of increasing their own social prominence. The idea of some kind of licence or ratification of ‘genuine’ science for public consumption is one that surfaces occasionally. Popularisations are consumed by lay readers among whom are literary intellectuals, social commentators, political journalists, philosophers, historians and priests: scientists did not anticipate that among the non-scientific populace there were such skilled critics with their own agenda for the complexion of British popular and intellectual culture. Feminist, multiculturalist and environmentalist critiques have taken scientists by surprise.

Other lay critics have also made their mark: aiming a popularisation at the general public does not necessarily mean that the general public will turn out to consume it. One august scientific institution recently found that the small audiences it musters for its public events comprise, in overwhelming majority, members of other august scientific institutions, and hardly any members of the public at all. The idea that audience research might be helpful is slowly dawning.

Popularisations often take science beyond its own formal boundaries. Cosmologists tend towards metaphysics; geneticists towards social policy. Other communicators see science as tool for exploring areas such as parascience and spirituality, and some producers and editors fill their science slots with crystal healing, alien abductions and tree-hugging. Scientists, misunderstanding both media and audiences, did not anticipate that the spaces they campaigned for would be occupied by such topics. A number of our leading scientists involved in public understanding of science have shown themselves to be not just pro-science but also against anything non-scientific that encroaches on their patch. Their aggressive campaigns against religion and science-fiction drama have lost public understanding of science many friends. In the UK we have not gone quite as far as the USA, where scientists have claimed that horoscopes and New Age candle shops represent the end of civilisation, but we did make the mistake of thinking that as soon as the media and the public were shown the delights of science, they would embrace it on science’s own terms.

The question of who gets to make public statements about science is one that has caused some unseemly disputes. Scientists often maintain in public an idealised image of science functioning neatly to take us from hypothesis through experiment to truth, even though they may admit privately that their own daily toil has more to do with intuition, craft skill, informed guess-work and contingent results. Stories of neat, ideal science make for powerful accounts of past successes, but are a characterisation that is of little use when science is struggling, or problems are new. Sociologists of science, who tell stories in public about messy craft science, have argued that understanding how science really works can only engender more realistic expectations of science, and so lead to greater trust. Scientists in return see this as socially disruptive, undermining the cultural authority of science. There have been times when the whole enterprise has disintegrated into name-calling and even threats of legal action.

In retrospect it seems odd that natural scientists ever thought they could direct a programme of public understanding of science. After all, neither the public, nor understanding, nor even science itself, has traditionally been an object of study for natural scientists in Britain. Sociologists, anthropologists and social psychologists study the public; psychologists and educationalists study understanding; and historians, philosophers and sociologists study the nature of science. Many of the leading scientists in this movement in the UK have inadvertently displayed their ignorance.

The people I’m perhaps caricaturing are a small but vociferous and powerful group of activists. Indeed, most scientists in the UK have had nothing whatsoever to do with public understanding of science, despite the efforts by research councils to encourage their researchers to train and participate. It is still the case that public activity does not count towards a scientist’s career. Many scientific institutions have also come to acknowledge that what they do is not to promote public understanding of science, but to promote science. While this may seem like a retrograde step, it is nevertheless an honest one.

I have no doubt also that the ill-informed pronouncements of respected scientists on matters outside their areas of expertise have been an extra spur to social scientists in Britain to undertake research into the public understanding of science. They may also have encouraged the public to be more forthcoming on what they really want from science. It is by these routes that we have learnt that scientific facts are just one of the influences people bring to bear on their problems. In the real world, values, culture, morals and traditions matter, and they matter differently to different types of people. We have also learnt how strong a role trust plays in relationships between experts and laypeople. Perhaps most especially we have learnt that if we are to achieve a true democracy on scientific issues, then everyone has a right to speak, irrespective of their formal training, qualifications, or social position. How we factor such input into scientific decision-making is a challenge we now face.

The public has a loud voice for scientific issues, when it chooses to use it. Apart from actively constructing its own areas of expertise and of ignorance, the public is quick to become politically active on matters it feels are important. This active public is rather different from the invisible and passive public of the earlier official statements on public understanding of science. These presented a public that is easily seduced by the flashes and bangs of ‘the science is fun!’ approach. If we are to enhance democracy, critics have argued, what we need is an Athenian model, where the public are citizens contributing to public discussion of public issues. One does not need to know many legs insects have in order to contribute to a democratic decision about research on embryos, for example. Indeed, if one’s position on such an issue is primarily a moral one, then even knowing about embryology is likely to be beside the point.

A second chance

These lessons have been taken on board by a House of Lords committee which reported earlier this year [6]. The report, Science and Society, has been welcomed by many who see it as setting straight errors of the past. The committee comprised not just their Lordships but also learned societies, scientific businesses, lay groups and academics from sociology, social psychology, science education and media studies. For the first time in a policy document, the key issue is trust — very little space is devoted to what people know. Attitudes and values are considered important. Survey evidence is treated critically. The report takes a broad cultural view, and acknowledges that British society is active, questioning and engaged with many social, cultural and political issues, one of which is science. It even questions the term ‘public understanding of science’, laden as it now is with the prejudices of the past.

The committee did their homework. For example, they acknowledge that there is a great deal of high-quality science reporting in the newspapers; they dismiss the long-standing but unsupported complaint by many scientists that scientific reporting is dangerously inaccurate; and they admonish scientists for expecting special treatment from journalists — science must earn its place in the headlines, and, like any other institution, take the rough with the smooth in the mass media. The report also reminds scientists that they might learn about and co-operate with the media: it goes so far as to state that ‘the culture of United Kingdom science needs a sea change, in favour of open and positive communication with the media’. Openness is also encouraged in government scientific advisers, who must be allowed to behave independently — indeed, they must ‘robustly protect and vindicate their independence’. 

Democracy is a key issue in the House of Lords report. There is great emphasis on what and how the public might contribute to policy decisions. It recommends a much greater openness of political scientific debate, and suggests a number of means by which the public might become engaged in policy issues. The report argues that such public engagement should be conducted in good faith: it should be integrated into the policy process, and the scope for public contributions should be made clear. It notes that the main function of such input is not to make scientific decisions — the best people to make scientific decisions are scientists — but to inform scientists by making explicit the social context and moral environment in which their science policy decisions must work.

Overall, this report makes recommendations that would change scientific institutions, the administration of science, the ways in which scientists are rewarded, the contributions scientists make to public debates, and the ways in which science policies are formulated. It calls for greater co-operation by scientists with other institutions — media, government and public. It argues for greater openness and integrity from scientists: if their motive is to sell a product, win a scientific argument, or gain more funding for their project, this should be clear. In summary, unlike earlier reports that instructed the public to learn, change and co-operate with science, this report encourages scientists to learn, change and co-operate with society.


Whether this latest report will make a difference to scientists’ behaviour isn’t clear. The extent to which earlier recommendations were followed seems to have been limited. In any case, such recommendations were made on the basis of naïve conceptions such as ‘more is better’. The public have taught us a useful lesson by resisting the public understanding of science movement in this gauche incarnation, and by declining to co-operate with scientists who treated them like idiots. It is a shame that we have wasted time and resources flinging around scientific facts; and a shame that so many of our leading scientists have caused so much irritation among other previously friendly professions. Many of us working in this field in Britain hope that the recent House of Lords report, which takes such comprehensive account of all that researchers have learned from the public over the last 15 years, will make scientists aware of the fact that they have to earn their place as one among many authorities in society. It is time to acknowledge that our early emphasis on the public learning from the scientists was misplaced, and that what we need is for scientists to learn from the people.

The author is Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, United Kingdom. j.gregory@bbk.ac.uk


  1. See Gregory, J. and Miller, S. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (New York: Plenum, 1998).

  2. Durant, J.R., et al. The Public Understanding of Science. Nature, Vol. 340, pp.11-14.

  3. Evans, G.A. and J. Durant, J. The Relationship Between Knowledge and Attitudes in the Public Understanding of Science in Britain. Public Understanding of Science Vol. 4, pp.57-74, 1995.

  4. Zhongliang Zhang and Jiansheng Zhang, A Survey of Public Scientific Literacy in China, Public Understanding of Science, Vol. 2 , pp. 21-38, 1993.

  5. Bauer, M., et al. Science and Technology in the British Press, 1946-1990 (London: Science Museum, 1995).

  6. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Science and Society (London: HMSO, 2000).