The Royal Society has launched a new project to consider how science can be made to work for the public.
Scientific research has an enormous impact on our world and the lives of citizens. It is therefore important that science is not, and is not seen to be, a private enterprise, conducted behind the closed doors of laboratories, but a public enterprise to understand better the world we live in and our place in it. Effective dialogue about the priorities and insights of science and its relation to public values is vital. Scientists can no longer assume an unquestioning public trust.
The general theme of the project seems sound. As I have pointed out before, scientists have perverse incentives - as civil servants their economic incentive is to publish more, to attract attention and to grow their funding. The public interest is not particularly a priority. And with the Australian chief scientist noting that he sees himself as a lobbyist for the scientific community - no doubt the same situation applies in the UK - this conflict of interest is laid bare. So the idea of trying to get scientists working for the people who pay them is a good one, but I hold out little hope of an effective remedy.
And anyway, I'm not sure the Royal Society wants anyone to take the project seriously. The project is to be led by none other than Professor Geoffrey Boulton, a man whose record on creating public trust in UK science is a tad shaky, to say the least. The panel also includes Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, whose record is little better.