07 October 2015
Professor Gail Cardew, Royal Institution Chair in Science, Culture and Society, on the huge public appetite for science
‘Science Lives Here’ is the motto that sits under ‘Royal Institution’ in our logo. We changed it a few years ago to reflect that for over 200 years the Royal Institution has been at the forefront of public discussion about science.
The Royal Institution was the place to be when Davy, Faraday and other great scientists shared their work with a public audience. It admitted women to join the conversation at a time when they were prevented from even entering university, let alone the plethora of gentlemen’s clubs around Mayfair. The Christmas Lectures were started when there was no formal science education for young people. And these lectures were (probably) the first science on TV when they were broadcast on the BBC literally only one month after the first regular BBC service in November 1936. And today, because films on our YouTube channel are reaching global views of over 14 million, Science (still) Lives Here.
Part of the reason why we invest in our YouTube channel is to showcase the very best of UK science to an international audience (around 85% of our audience is non-UK). Even our hour-long talks – by Tara Shears at University of Liverpool or by Chris Bishop at Microsoft Research, for example – are watched by hundreds of thousands of people.
This, together with the fact that many of our public talks are sold out, illustrates that there is a huge public appetite for science. But we can’t rest on our laurels because our job isn’t yet done. Research indicates that although people have trust in science they feel relatively uninformed about it, and young people in particular do not generally aspire to become scientists unless they have high levels of ‘science capital’ (i.e. they are exposed to science at home and in school from an early age).
Our films, talks, Christmas Lectures and other education activities help provide this science capital. Taken together they paint a picture of UK science as being a creative and accessible endeavour filled with committed people that care about making the world a better place – through making new insights and inventions, contributing to a healthy economy, stimulating the minds of others, and ensuring that controversial technological developments and associated regulations are discussed openly with the public.
This thriving picture of UK science will be on display in Manchester next year when it becomes the European City of Science. This title was bestowed on the city because it will play host to the biggest and best pan-European general science conference, the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF). It is a big deal: the previous ESOF in Copenhagen was attended by the President of the European Commission, the European DG of Research and Innovation, and also by the Danish Queen and Science Minister. It was literally a Who’s Who of the international science scene. Manchester was selected to follow in these big footsteps precisely because it is a brilliant example of a city that has an ongoing commitment not only to producing the very best research but also to sharing it openly and creatively with the public.
This international reputation for engaging and creative science in the UK hasn’t happened by chance but has been developed over hundreds of years, to the extent that the UK is now recognised as punching above its weight in terms of research excellence. For example, although the UK represents just 0.9% of the global population and 4.1% of researchers, it accounts for 9.5% of downloads, 11.6% of citations and 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles. Amongst its comparator countries, the UK has overtaken the US to rank first by field-weighted citation impact.
Just in itself it’s fantastic to live in a country which produces such highly relevant research. But the icing on the cake is that our research also has an impact in the business sense. Every £1 of public investment in R&D raises private sector output by 20p each year in perpetuity. Companies that persistently invest in R&D have 13% higher productivity than those with no R&D spending. And companies in receipt of innovation grants from UK government are 41% more likely than other similar companies to introduce new products to market, with product innovation linked to raising a firm’s labour productivity.
Scientists are worried that a completely different picture will start to emerge if R&D investment decreases. We at the Royal Institution are also worried about the demoralising effect this step might have on those considering a career in science or are simply curious about it, as well as all of us who benefit from its advances. Our tasks of engaging people with science and of increasing science capital – for young people and their influencers – are much more difficult if science isn’t at the top of the agenda politically. If the UK government does not demonstrate that it values science by continuing to invest in it, then how can we expect society – and in particular the next generation – to value, support and engage with it?