Science So What? So Everything: FOIA response

We are pleased to say that we have now received a detailed response from the Public Communications Unit to our Freedom of Information Act Request about Science So What? So Everything. The full response is below, in blockquotes; text in italics is our original questions. We have inserted some comments. there is a lot of detail here, though – we will return to this in future, but wanted to get this online ASAP.

What budget has been made available for the campaign, and how much has been spent?

So far, £600K has been spent on the campaign. Budget for 09/10 is still to be agreed.

This is useful to know. I wonder if the £600,000 budget excludes expenditure since the end of last financial year at the end of March? We will be submitting a further FOIA request: asking for spending to-date this financial year.

Which staff are involved, and in which roles?
The following are the key day to day campaign staff:

* Marketing Manager – DIUS
* Adviser on Social Media – DIUS
* Head of External Science Communications – DIUS
* Contractor – Kindred Agency
* Contract manager – COI

DIUS and COI staff are not full time on this campaign, they work simultaneously across the Department’s other communications and marketing campaign activity.

What are the goals of the campaign?
Science [So What? So Everything] is an evolving and ongoing campaign which aims to bring alive the importance, relevance and interest of science to the broader population, with particular emphasis on groups that are normally resistant to or turned off by science. The campaign wants to encourage more people to give science a second look in terms of a subject to study or a career to follow – or indeed an area of everyday life with the power to enthral and fascinate. Part of its strategy for achieving the above is to popularise media coverage of the many excellent science stories which originate from DIUS delivery partners (the Research Councils, Other Government Departments, the learned societies) relocating these from the science titles and pages of the broadsheets into the tabloid and popular magazines. One example was using the British Antarctic Survey’s recruiting drive for technicians, carpenters etc (in the South Pole) as a story illustrating that science careers do not necessarily conform to the white coated, lab-based stereotype.

Did the campaign aim to engage with/outreach to the UK science blogging community, and why?
Yes. The science blog community contains a wealth of fantastic information and resources, but that are generally inward-facing. We wanted to see if we could find a way of helping promote good science that exists there to the wider community. Judging by a lot of the feedback, we have made a positive start but we still have a long way to go.

It is nice that they acknowledge the good material on science blogs (although it is a shame that they don’t seem to link any from their main website). Certainly, there are always opportunities for science blogs to engage with wider audiences, and one can always do things better. However, in terms of online public engagement, we would argue that a number of UK science blogs (those in our blogroll, for example) are doing a rather good job. On the other hand, we have – as we have argued – have yet to be convinced by Science: So What‘s efforts. We would also note that the fact that Science: So What needed to use Twitter to ask for recommendations of UK science blogs may suggest a somewhat limited review of the literature in this area.

We would be interested to know who assessed UK science blogs as “inwards-looking” (and have asked about this in a FOIA request). Were these assessments made by the PR agency, scientists, social media people or others? And on what basis?

We would also be interested to know about the web traffic received by Science: So What‘s website and blog – given the role that these will be playing in their implicitly more outwards-facing stance. We are submitting a FOIA request, to ask for these figures. There are also various established (although, of course, contestable) approaches to blog ranking – for example, eDrugSearch. Have Science: So What assessed how these metrics rate their sites in comparison to blogs like Bad Science or Left Brain Right Brain?

Did the campaign aim to engage with/outreach to the UK Public Understanding of Science community, and why?
The campaign’s target audience is the general public and as such its activities to date have not directly targeted materials to the science communication or public engagement communities. However, the campaign is a collaborative venture, with many organisations involved in public engagement with science – e.g. Government, Research Councils, learned societies, the British Science Association – all contributing to and linking with the campaign. The campaign aims to work with and through those organisations that reach it’s ultimate target audience and as the campaign grows we will be encouraging more such organisations to become part of it.

We would suggest that the Public Understanding of Science community would be good people to speak to, when trying to engage – or plan out how to engage with – with the general public. We would also argue that the Public Understanding of Science community is already doing interesting work to engage with broad audiences: certainly this is imperfect (as the academics involved would be quick to point out) but it is worthy of much more serious consideration.

It is disappointing that Science: So What are apparently – still – failing to give Public Understanding of Science the consideration it deserves. They might find a recent guest post here on science communication to be an accessible place to start.

What were and are the criteria for judging the success/failure of the campaign?
This campaign was developed in response to evidence arising from our consultation, A Vision for Science and Society, and from Public Attitudes to Science 2008. The latter research was commissioned jointly by DIUS and RCUK and built on previous studies commissioned by the Office of Science and Innovation in 2000 and 2005. While all three of these studies showed generally positive attitudes to science, the evidence suggests that there remain substantial groups within society with a lack of interest in science, or a feeling that it is somehow not for them. The large public attitudes survey will be repeated on a rolling three yearly basis in order to assess trends, and commissioning for the study to be published in 2011 will start later this year. Measuring the improvement in attitudes through the survey’s indicators on public perceptions and attitudes will be a key measure of the campaign’s success.

In the meantime, ongoing reporting will feed back on the amount of science coverage in the media, the amount of specific campaign coverage in the media (offline and online), responses to the campaign (e.g. number of visitors to the campaign website). Footfall at major science events and festivals and interim measures on public attitudes to science will also be considered.

We are surprised that web stats, comments generated, etc. are not among the criteria for judging the success or failure of the blog and website.

Why was there initially no e-mail address or other appropriate feedback mechanism on the ‘Science: So What?’ site?
The first stage was a simple announcement and signposting site to support the launch of the campaign and had no direct feedback mechanism. It linked to science stakeholders who have their own routes for communication. This is an evolving campaign; as the campaign enters the next phase of development, so the routes for communications will improve again, and we are taking note of the comments that have been made in that respect. We are still getting to grips with social media usage on campaigns such as these, but have embraced Twitter and blog commenting to help open two way communication routes so that we can learn from feedback and continue to improve.

Is this seen as a push campaign, rather than one that is intended to promote involvement?
The purpose of the campaign is to help aggregate good science content and promote to a wider audience – we don’t promote or produce very much of our own content, the focus is on signposting more than anything. Content is used as a “tempter” to get to that wider audience.

This is interesting to know, although the range of links on the Science: So What website is currently somewhat disappointing. We will be asking about how many people clicked through on these links – to get a sense of how effectively Science: So What were able to ‘tempt’ their audience to access these resources.

Also, we are very much in favour of promoting science to a wide audience. However, it is also important that there is content available for those who are – or become – more interested: as Ben Goldacre has argued, it is important that society provides resources for its nerds. In some cases, Science: So What seems to be pitching its content in such a way that it is unlikely to appeal to either audience: for example, I am not sure who would want to read the string of press releases on the Science: So What blog, except maybe a press officer working in the field?

How did the Science: So What? campaign choose which films to use on the site? And why were Creative Commons UK films largely not used?
We used films that were made for us in the first instance by the PR agency. Since then, we became aware of a lot of available video content and wish to make much more use of that in the future, with the proviso that we are not always “preaching to the converted” – sometimes we need to use more general public-focused content than we have currently found to be available, but will use whatever we can and avoid duplication.

We are not sure how using US videos is ‘inclusive’ for a UK evidence. We are not convinced that these videos are superior to the available UK-made Creative Commons science videos. Given the availability of good quality, free UK content, we do hope that Science: So What did not have to spend money on licensing or producing the videos it used.

Once again, we would emphasise that it is great that the government is working to promote science. As noted above, we do have some concerns about the implementation. We would, however, be delighted if Science: So What could develop into a strong, effective campaign that raises the profile of science in the UK.

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23 Comments

Filed under patrick holford

23 responses to “Science So What? So Everything: FOIA response

  1. gimpy

    Astonishing. £600k for what? A PR agency who used their own material instead of freely available Creative Commons licensed content. A PR agency who declare “we want to make our campaigns worth talking about.“. They have, just not quite as they intended.

    It might be worth investigating what experience the PR agency has in science communication…

  2. Wulfstan

    £600,000 for what? That scrappy website and (forgive me) pathetic blog that is nothing but press releases? The LOLing Twitters from the misguided social media tweeter who was around for the launch? The picture-opportunities for over-exposed celebs with Gordon Brown?

    At the present rate of expenditure – just how many centuries of Bad Science blogs or similar would £600,000 fund?

    I’ve known research projects that cost considerably less.

    Again, forgive me, £600,000 for what has been achieved to date seems obscene. Particularly in the context of the back-handed swipe at UK science blogs and the UK public engagement with science community (and I thought that your guest blogger made some very persuasive arguments that have still not been addressed by these people unless they emailed you privately and asked you not to publish it).

  3. Elliot

    Quick reply – that figure covers a lot more than just the website, there’s an entire campaign. That may not have come across from the replies posted here.

    I’ll answer some of these points shortly in as much detail as I can, as well as responding to the other post. Forgive delay, I am away from work today.

    Elliot

    • Thanks Elliot – look forward to your response. Yes – I appreciate that the £600k figure covers the whole campaign, not just the website.

  4. gimpy

    Elliot, the charity Sense About Science manage far more public outreach for less than half that amount of money. And I would criticise them for not doing perhaps as much as they could…

    Were any of the science communication organisations (SAS, SMC, etc) asked for involvement in Science So What?

  5. Wulfstan

    Elliot – sincerely, I admire you for coming here to address the criticism and to engage with the blog and the commenters.

    I did refer (perhaps a little obliquely) to the Downing St. reception and other press events in my reply.

    I stand by my assertion that there are university research projects with substantially lower funding than this campaign.

    I am surprised that the PR agency that was selected is not abiding by accessible web design principles even on its own website (I use a screen reader and the Flash is inaccessible). I’ve just had to ask someone to read their triumphalist text to me – you’ll forgive me my hollow snicker when I learned that they claim:

    Our specialism is attitudinal and behavioural change campaigns. We believe in the power of a central idea which works across all disciplines.

    It seems to me that this agency has successfully wrought an attitudinal and behavioral change in a bunch of mild-mannered scientists who are now rather cross at the way that this campaign has been run and at the treatment of their public engagement colleagues who seem to have been disrespected at the time of the survey, the planning of the campaign, during the launch and now – in the original response from the agency, your own and now in the FoIA response.

    The agency in question might believe that it could just graft its old media expertise onto digital media because PR is “a central idea which works across all disciplines” but it clearly does not and it has not worked. Extending out from that, I expect that someone who has no familiarity with digital media or digital campaigns is heading up this initiative and is failing to grasp the different time-scales of digital media and the need for a timely, fully-informed response. The need for such only increases when you are dealing with a group of research-savvy scientists or people with shared interests.

    Elliot, I am convinced of your sincerity and await your follow-ups with interest.

  6. Wulfstan

    I’m going to elaborate a little more.

    By your reference to your research partners, I take it that Science: So What does not accept any of the public engagement people as research allies, associates etc.? I am a little surprised by this as, for example, the Cambridge lectures are very well attended and include a broad cross-section in the audience. Ben Goldacre’s recent talk there was an example of this – the Bad Scienceforums have several regular contributors who report that they have no science background, work in call centres and similar jobs and are interested in Goldacre’s science commentary and related issues.

    I can’t find the links but I seem to recall that both Holfordwatch and David Colquhoun have had some collaboration with The Sun on some stories which speaks to the wide sort of audiences with whom they communicate.

    It wasn’t only science blogs but general blogs that were caught up in the discussion about Jeni Barnett and LBC. It seems to me that Science: So What may have missed an outstanding opportunity to learn something from the huge amount of comment around that story – which wasn’t just about science and opinion but many other issues.

  7. Pingback: Schadenfreude: The Kindred Agency and Public Engagement « jdc325’s Weblog

  8. Just a quick note – HolfordWatch replies to any comments on this issue might take a day or two. A bit tied up with other commitments at the moment…

  9. Elliot

    Jon and all commenters / readers – thanks for your reporting of the FOI answer. I’ll do my best here to address some of the outstanding issues you’ve raised, but from the points made in discussion here, we might get the most from meeting up to talk through how the campaign can be improved in future? See below, at end…

    I should once again make it clear that I’m answering in my personal capacity; as of this moment we don’t have official policies on replying to / communicating through blog posts. We will have soon (there’s no lack of will to get this sorted, but it’s still under development). As such, I hope people take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended and aren’t too put out if I haven’t answered everything in full – something which I hope can be addressed further (when I’ve got more comprehensive responses) and / or in person.

    For now, here goes:

    – I don’t think we’ve made the point forcefully enough, but we’re absolutely not discounting the skill and experience of the science communication community, which DIUS works with through our flagship Sciencewise programme amongst others. That said, we need to do more as Science So What evolves as a campaign, to find ways to ensure it too is shaped by the body of PUS research and the practical experience of science communicators. And we need to make sure that it does provide the intended umbrella brand for the work these specialists are doing, as well as seeking out new opportunities to get the message out about critical engagement with science by the public. As part of that, we need to evaluate the impact the campaigns have, as much as is possible in the woolly world of marketing.

    – As an avid reader of Bad Science (book on bedside table right now), I’m stung by the criticism that we are dismissing UK science bloggers. That’s really not the case – the passion and tenacity of science bloggers is staggering (and one of the reasons we sponsored and attended Science Blogging 2008 last summer), so it’s uncomfortable to be on the sharp end of it. But SSW hasn’t yet properly tapped into the potential of science bloggers (and film-makers and other content creators too) to participate in the campaign and keep us honest, and we’d like to rectify that. Though it’s a slightly separate point, the ‘resources for nerds’ alongside the general public content is a good one: we need to work out what is best done or supported by government, and where, frankly, we should just get out of the way.

    – I can’t comment on criticisms of the agency specifically – that wouldn’t be fair as (a) they and all companies that deal with government should have a degree of commercial confidentiality and good faith which precludes public criticism (except in the case of huge negligence / misdeeds / fraud etc), (b) running national PR campaigns is a highly complex affair and extremely specialised; if anyone wants to discuss how campaigns like this are run on a national basis, am more than happy to get into it elsewhere, but I think it’s a diversion from the meat of the issues we could / should be discussing here. Unless you fancy starting a PR blog… :) ; (c) there are large parts of the campaign that have been extremely successful but aren’t part of the discussion here, especially on the PR side, with a really good spread of science stories in the tabloids etc – that’s just one example – and (d) I happen to think they’re a nice bunch of people and feel bad on a personal level to reduce them to an abstract. The person who made the post that kicked off some of the recent ire is completely gutted and guilty of a little naivete rather than malice; (e) the amounts quoted are not all spent with one agency and (f) the digital element is a relatively small percentage of the whole. If it’s OK, that’s as much as I’d like to say about the agency.

    – Accessibility / website: totally valid criticisms IMHO. Non-compliance with industry standards is not acceptable in my book. Being dealt with. As for web stats as a measure of success, yes, they are and we have no problem sharing them. However, they probably won’t reveal much of interest in this case as yet – the numbers aren’t brilliant by my standards (I’d class them as a “good start”) but remember: this campaign is not meant to be a flash in the pan burst of PR. It’s meant to be a long term campaign aimed at big changes that take time; good online campaigns tend to take a longer period of time to become successful (generalisation, but applicable here I think). The blog roll stuff is all valid too – but what you saw in the campaign tweeting for people’s suggestions etc is really a combination of research and engagement – getting people to suggest sites they like is a good way of starting a conversation with them. If you aren’t a science specialist it’s going to take time to find your feet, and there was further content and research coming from a number of sources. This wasn’t the only method of finding blogs, etc. I’m hoping your help here will improve things still further in the future.

    – Again, this is an ever-evolving situation. The website, the way content is created / sourced, the way it’s marketed, etc – all under review, as these things always should be. You will definitely see some marked changes in the web strategy in the coming couple of months. If you feel you have some expertise to lend, opinions, content links, etc. then I urge you to contribute via the address on the website; if you aren’t getting the responses you want, maybe we can organise something via here? (JonHW – would that be OK?). Or, you could just mail us a cup with a piece of string attached…

    Onto the issue of engagement with PUS community etc. I asked a colleague who has much more knowledge on the subject than I and they made some interesting points (we were talking off-duty and informally btw, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me quoting some of their thoughts):
    [HW] “DIUS’ summary of the responses to the consultation is now available. Worryingly the whole of 25 years of academic PUS research seems to be put into no more than one paragraph…. [snip]

    My colleague thinks there might be a misunderstanding there:

    “That paragraph is [not about the] 25 years of academic PUS research. It is acknowledging that some social scientists (and that is what the authors of the critical open letter called themselves) weren’t happy with the consultation document.”

    They go on to say:

    “The thing that bothers me with this response [i.e.mine] and with the earlier blogs is that both DIUS and the bloggers [seem to imply] that SSW is the Department’s only response to the consultation. It isn’t. It is a very small part. There is a whole UK S&S [Science & Society] strategy being developed to address all the other issues.
    We heard [the various opinions, voices etc] and reflected them in the analysis report. And the S&S strategy will be addressing them. The SSW campaign is only tackling the excitement/awareness issues, not everything else.
    The blogs talk about the S&S analysis report being our response – it isn’t, and makes very clear that it isn’t – the analysis report was simply a reflection of the views we received…. The analysis report reflected their views, but also reflected the hundreds of other views!!”

    This, of course, is a point I should have made before. SSW is only one part of a long-game campaign. Real change takes time and a multi-pronged approach, not all of which is yet defined or in motion.

    So, let’s try and redress the balance. FOI requests – understand completely where you’re coming from with those (I’m a fan, they are vital to a long list of freedoms in this country, no criticism here) but we can probably do a lot more sitting round a table. Yes, we should have done this before perhaps (although I’ll also make sure you see the lists of people consulted with and it’s probably much more lengthy than you think! There is certainly no limitation from our end on who can / can’t take part, and we’re keen for as many people as possible to have their say.). An open offer to HW – coffee, perhaps biscuits (out of my own pocket). If you can nominate 2 or 3 people (sensible amount?) to come have a visit, I’ll find answers / people for you to meet and, if you wish, we can have a more general conversation about campaigns like this in general, too. I think it’s a better use of everyone’s time to talk face to face and see if we can’t reach agreement on best ways to move forward – I really do believe we’re all on the same side and want the same things. An “unofficial” meet at first, so everyone on both sides can speak freely, and then I’d like to help open up the methods for engagement with the wider project to make sure everyone knows how to get involved, if they wish to.

    Thanks again for listening. Sorry for lengthiness and any points I’ve not addressed directly, but am hoping this is the start of some better communications, albeit in a temporarily unofficial manner…

    Elliot

    • Just to say that we have seen this. It’s an interesting response and we shall think more and get back to this as soon as we can. None of us is in London so that might be a problem for a get-together.

      I think that most of us are familiar with long-delayed sign-offs for policies, papers etc. however, it does look as if responding to digital coverage badly lags behind the responsivity that one expects for print or mainstream broadcast media where one might expect that Press Officers can handle most developments or enquiries.

      On the issue of a mis-understanding about the 25 years etc. – it seems to be a widespread ‘misapprehension’ if UCL, inter alia, were sufficiently concerned by the terms of the survey to give such a detailed response to it that went considerably beyond the terms of the original survey. The guest post about public understanding/engagement with science is a well-nuanced exploration of these issues.

    • Very quick response to some individual points rather than overall as yet.

      Elliot wrote: (there’s no lack of will to get this sorted, but it’s still under development).

      Yes, sign-off processes can be tortuous. Nonetheless, DIUS is one of the govt. depts. that is trying to introduce innovative ways of working and the integration of new media, is it not? In which case 9 months plus in which there is obviously a realisation of a need to integrate the timescale of new media but nothing has been done, that sounds like a fundamental flaw: it sounds as if the people who thought up this campaign and came up with the mission may well have had the rhetoric of media and social media engagement but had no understanding of what such aspirations should include. This is a particularly startling omission when one considers that the demographics of those who use digital media strongly overlap with that of the notional target group of SSW and similar projects.

      Your engagement with the PUS community is not strong. Respectfully – ScienceWise is not a good example, it is full of (ironically) inward-facing jargon that reflects hierarchical structures and organisational concerns that are of no relevance to the reader. I selected this page at random, ScienceWise Priority Areas:

      As part of this stakeholder engagement process, Sciencewise’s sciencehorizons project engaged with the public to identify their hopes, fears and aspirations about emerging and future technology in the year 2025.

      The science and technology ‘clusters’ that were discussed at the WIST workshops were derived by cross-Government consultations on material contained in the Sigma and Delta (S&T) Scans (commissioned by the Horizon Scanning Centre), and from the work of the Technology Strategy Board.

      Elliot wrote: we need to do more as Science So What evolves as a campaign, to find ways to ensure it too is shaped by the body of PUS research and the practical experience of science communicators.

      The difficulty with your espoused position of involving PUS people as the SSW campaign evolves is that it doesn’t allow for correcting any fundamental errors in the campaign and correcting them before funding is spent on areas that are known to be unhelpful. At the heart of this is the cliche that, ‘if you want to get there, then you shouldn’t have started from here’. The longer that SSW continues without the direct involvement of people such as UCL and those whose excellent response appears to them (and others) to have been discounted, then the more awry that this campaign may well go.

      Fair enough on the agency – although I have very strong feelings about web design that does not meet W3 WAI standards and particularly for a campaign that is presenting itself as inclusive and directed towards novel audiences.

      Elliot wrote: The person who made the post that kicked off some of the recent ire is completely gutted and guilty of a little naivete rather than malice.

      I doubt anyone thought that it was malice: however, it was a striking example of the way in which active science communicators are typically addressed and discounted by people with no direct interest in science but who feel that they know better, by dint of a communications, PR, marketing background etc. In many ways, this is like Ben Goldacre’s oft-repeated remark about:

      humanities graduates [who run the media] with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.

      I’ll continue the remainder in a separate comment as this is unwieldy.

    • Elliot wrote: As for web stats as a measure of success, yes, they are and we have no problem sharing them.

      The interest in your webstats arises from the somewhat high-handed comment in the FOIA response that science blogs are “inward-facing”: such a judgment implies analysis and we are interested in what formed that analysis, who did it, and the criteria for such assessments. To be blunt, that remark implied a value judgement that implied that someone had looked at the science blogs and dismissed them as peripheral: it is unlikely that that comment can be spun any other way.

      Elliot wrote:good online campaigns tend to take a longer period of time to become successful (generalisation, but applicable here I think). The blog roll stuff is all valid too – but what you saw in the campaign tweeting for people’s suggestions etc is really a combination of research and engagement.

      I’m aware of the context of the ‘request’ for recommended science blogs and we must disagree about your interpretation of it. The follow-up to that was also less than adequate.

      If there had been serious attempts to engage the UK science blogging community then SSW would not have surprised so many of us when there was the splashy, celeb-studded launch earlier this year. Might I suggest that if SSW had been serious about engagement then it might have approached Dr Ben Goldacre, Professor David Colquhoun or other relatively-high profile science bloggers to the launch. If the SSW social media people had solicited for involvement, coverage or recommendations at venues such as the Bad Science Forum then they might well have had some useful pre-launch feedback, enthusiasm or information.

      To be continued.

    • Elliot – thanks for your response. A lot of things have already been addressed. I’ll respond re a couple of other issues, though.

      FOI requests – understand completely where you’re coming from with those (I’m a fan, they are vital to a long list of freedoms in this country, no criticism here) but we can probably do a lot more sitting round a table. Yes, we should have done this before perhaps (although I’ll also make sure you see the lists of people consulted with and it’s probably much more lengthy than you think! There is certainly no limitation from our end on who can / can’t take part, and we’re keen for as many people as possible to have their say.). An open offer to HW – coffee, perhaps biscuits (out of my own pocket). If you can nominate 2 or 3 people (sensible amount?) to come have a visit, I’ll find answers / people for you to meet and, if you wish, we can have a more general conversation about campaigns like this in general, too. I think it’s a better use of everyone’s time to talk face to face and see if we can’t reach agreement on best ways to move forward – I really do believe we’re all on the same side and want the same things. An “unofficial” meet at first, so everyone on both sides can speak freely, and then I’d like to help open up the methods for engagement with the wider project to make sure everyone knows how to get involved, if they wish to.

      Fair enough – I’m very happy to discuss things informally. You can e-mail us on holfordwatch at googlemail dot com. Of course, we’ll happily drop our follow-up FOIA request if you’d like to just e-mail us the information we’ve asked for (and give us permission to publish this on the blog), or post the info here as a comment. And, of course, feel to discuss things on this comments thread in the meantime.

      I should say, though, that for some time FOIA requests seemed to be the quickest way to get a response out of Science So What. Until a better system for responding to blogs is in place, they may still be the quickest way of getting an ‘official’ response?

      The blog roll stuff is all valid too – but what you saw in the campaign tweeting for people’s suggestions etc is really a combination of research and engagement – getting people to suggest sites they like is a good way of starting a conversation with them. If you aren’t a science specialist it’s going to take time to find your feet, and there was further content and research coming from a number of sources.

      Fair enough re engagement. However, I would still have hoped that it would have been possible for Science So What to research a better blogroll from the start. For example, a quick search would have alerted the agency to various sites ranking health and science blogs, and allowed them – along with twittered suggestions – to build a better blogroll and set of links from the start.

  10. Wulfstan

    From my perspective, accessible web design should be mandatory for govt. websites and for any partners who have websites.

    I’ve just had a browse of the Sciencewise site – it isn’t fully accessible. The navigation of that website is very poor and some very good initiatives are completely obscured by that navigation options. Eg, you shouldn’t have to drill down 5 levels to find information on how to get involved in the public dialogue. The phrasing of that highlights one of the issues that the people designing that programme see it as dialogue but actually make it difficult for people to find specific information – I also wonder how many of the target groups would respond to an invitation to “public dialogue”. I very much doubt that serious, knowledgeable public engagement people would promote such activities in those terms. For me, this does raise questions about who is involved in these activities and whether people are formulating websites and campaign outlines and then consulting relevant people afterwards, expecting them to rubberstamp the plans, and then claiming that the relevant people were properly involved.

    In support of dvnutrix’s point about not starting from here, I suggest that working about what was needed and establishing what already exists should have been done before the campaign was planned.

    we need to work out what is best done or supported by government, and where, frankly, we should just get out of the way.

    I’m no particular fan of them but an organisation such as Sense About Science might have collaborated with (say) UCL to produce a decent state-of-the-art report which would have given a much better basis for campaign planning. Obviously, not to you, but to other people it does look like a group of people believed they knew best, commissioned a survey to reinforce that impression of themselves, didn’t like all of the responses so disregarded the ones that didn’t fit in with their pre-conceived plans. They then went ahead and launched a campaign without questioning whether it was the right or most effective thing to do.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t look like the guest blogger’s arguments have been addressed. It looks possible to have a campaign that is a marketing success and yet has absolutely no useful outcomes.

    I understand that you are hampered and you don’t mean it that way but the reiteration of speaking in a personal capacity makes it look a little like the playground scenario of being friends with people only as long as other people can’t see you together.

    I read about US Airforce Social Media Tool – and that looks like a reasonable strategy. If the US Airforce can do this, and a good tool already exists then it is shameful that UK Govt. can’t formulate a policy within a reasonable timescale. It also makes a mockery of the all the exhortations we’ve had to listen to over the last decade of the UK being a switched-on, digital, open for business 24-7 economy.

    I will probably have more to say later.

  11. warumich

    Finally found some time to read through all this and add my 2 cents. First of all, Elliot, thanks very much for taking the comments seriously, and engaging with us.
    Now then. I never thought to imply that SSW was going to be the only response to the consultation, and I also wrote that it remains to be seen what they’ll make of the social scientists’ input. That may not have come out very clearly.

    I’d be very interested to follow the whole of the “Science and Society” response your colleague was talking about. If it is anything like the consultation document though I have some grave concerns, as have most of my colleagues, and I wrote the post mainly to try and explain them (as well as link to people who’ve done that much better, as you do). The fact that the social science contribution was summarised in a paragraph in the summary of the responses didn’t fill me with much hope that the eventual strategy will be much different, but I may well have misread it. In any case, I will follow the wider S&S strategy with interest.
    That the social scientists in their response called themselves “social scientists” rather than emphasising their competence regarding public understanding of science surprises me somewhat, and I would in that case definitely call their judgement into question.

    As for your website, I don’t want to be too critical- unlike my friends here for example I don’t think 600k is actually that much and I can well believe that costs run up pretty quickly (though keep in mind that HW is run for free if we discount the imaginary big pharma millions we’ve all been promised). Also I would argue that your site statistics are (this soon after the launch) completely unreliable indicators of whether you’re doing a good job.
    Instead have rather fundametal concerns here that I’m sure you don’t have any particular control over, so I wouldn’t blame the SSW team for them. These would have to do with what you can actually achieve with a .gov website that is charged with “tackling the excitement/awareness issues”.
    There are deeply rooted and complex reasons why people are not as excited and aware of science as you would like them to be (ignoring for the moment the issues of why we should want people to be more excited/aware and what that exactly means in the first place). Some can be idetified, such as lack of proper career structures in science (and young people being far from naive), popular media representations of science as nerdy and unsexy etc. Others we have no particular handle on – it may just be a fashion dynamic. If we still have no satisfactory explanation for why flares were ever popular, what hope do we have for explaining science’s unpopularity? Although I would certainly go a step further back and question (sorry wulfstan) the assumption that people are uninterested/unaware of science. Most of the problems identified in, say Goldacre’s book, are not to do with uninterestedness in science but in a lack of knowledge in whom to trust (remember that Wakefield, Holford and McKeith all play on real or imagined scientific authority). If people were uninterested in science a fake PhD shouldn’t be neccessary. And I’m not quite sure what halcyon days we’re comparing the situation with anyway. Were people ever that excited by science? If not, was it such a big problem then?

    Another problem: Since you’re explicitly tasked with making science somehow popular, you can hardly be seen as a trustworthy source of advice for any youngster wanting to find out more about science – because you have this agenda. To take an example, the career links about science that I already mentioned. Can I trust you to give me an honest account of how great it is to study science if I know that you’re tasked to big science up? Of course not. And people aren’t that naive. They see a .gov address and think “well they would say that”.
    Now that’s not your fault, and I’m glad that with our website (Understanding Uncertainty, since you ask) I don’t have this dilemma. I can be as critical of science as I like.
    But this goes to the heart of the social scientists’ critique of the consultation – “Science and Society” is a two way process, as I have argued, and as the name suggests. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a monolithic “science” that can easily communicated when scientists routinely and vehemently disagree with each other, and even who counts as a scientist is itself in constant dispute. But as I said, these issues aren’t news, and how they can be sensibly included in a website with your particular mission is a difficult question, I’m sure.

    Now you have to make the best out of the situation you’re in, and I wish you all the best of luck in that. Identifying the blogging community as a resource is a good step (but I would say that of course), though keep in mind that we as a group generally have different aims, concerns and audiences in mind, and therefore the relationship will be fraught from the beginning. But also I would argue that science blogging, for all the enthusiasm everyone has for it at the moment, has itself serious flaws as a science communication tool – I’ve been at the 2008 science blogging conference too, and I was amazed by the lack of sober analysis of what blogs can actually achieve, amid all the undboubted enthusiasm and potential. As with so many things, more research is sorely needed.

    These are some hopefully more or less coherent thoughts. Do tell me if I get the wrong end of the stick somewhere, it’s late and I’m not in the mood for proofreading all this. But I’d be more than happy to take up your offer of tea, biscuits and a friendly chat, and unlike the others I don’t live too far from London. I’m fairly busy at the moment though, having just started a new job and one too many projects, but in principle I’d be happy to.

    Admin edit: ETA link to Understanding Uncertainty.

  12. Wulfstan

    Warumich – I’m not sure what it is you think we disagree about but it doesn’t seem anything major? I was arguing that lots of people (other than self-styled scientists) have some interest in aspects of science even if they wouldn’t describe it that way. However, that probably wasn’t too clear.

    You write:

    I would argue that science blogging, for all the enthusiasm everyone has for it at the moment, has itself serious flaws as a science communication tool.

    I doubt that anyone sees science blogging as a sole communication medium as opposed to part of the spectrum of options.

    Is a lack of interest in science a problem? Depends on what you call science (to refer to your excellent post). If science includes the ability to assess the statistical support for various political, medical or personal decisions, then – yes, it’s a literacy issue. As someone who has enforced literacy issues (not everything is accessible to a screen-reader) – this is something about which I have very strong feelings. You would probably not believe that amount of data that has no alternative format that I can use. Without access to the core data, I have to take a ludicrous amount on trust which is bad when I don’t necessarily trust the source.

    • warumich

      Oops, took me a while to figure out why you’d think I disagree with you. Probably the “sorry wulfstan” comment? Meant as a light hearted reply to your earlier “typical academic, deconstructing the question” quip. To which I would actually quite agree. Proofreading would probably have been a good idea.

      Re. Science blogging – suppose you should have been there at the conference, the pervading enthusiasm for blogging to supplant the “dead tree” press and lead us to a new Habermassian ideal of the public sphere was almost endearingly cute. But to a certain extent I’m of course charicaturing, it was a really useful meeting.

      • Wulfstan

        Ah, the innocence, the loveliness of thrilling with bliss to be alive and counting to be young as very heaven mixed in with the idealism of rescuing a few precious shards from the broken illusions of the Enlightenment – I’m very sorry I missed it.

        It has been interesting to follow people discussing some of these issues. I am sometimes torn between thinking that govt. depts can do a perfectly good job of researching issues in-house but there are times when they need to out-source them to a 3rd party that does this sort of thing all the time. The problem with out-sourcing too much specialist work is that govt. loses people with enough awareness to know how to manage self-styled experts and to realise when they are being snowed. It’s a big problem with IT (as many people know).

        It’s probably also a big issue with any sensitive policy issue such as drug addiction or the war on drugs. There are probably many excellent people in govt. depts. who are very knowledgeable about the issues but it would never be acceptable for them to come up with a report that ran counter to the political stance of the party in power.

  13. Elliot

    Hi

    Thanks to all for your comments again.

    Quick response re FOI – I’m happy to mail things directly, but I have one comment re posting stats etc here that might be worth mentioning: i.e. the raw data without the wider context within which it sits might be misleading / uninformative. Reading warumich’s post, it’s clear you’ve got a deeper understanding of the web issues than most (and thanks, again, for your understanding of the difficulties we face); if we post all the data here are we going to get bogged down in the details of a situation we’re already trying to move on from? We’re keen to draw a line under the current web scenario and get moving on the next, improved phase. Happy to do it, just want to know what you think.

    That said, I think you should leave the FOI request in place for now as I don’t want anyone to think that my posting here is an attempt to interfere with a perfectly legitimate request. I can totally see why this has been best route for getting info up ’til now, I’m more keen to improve future communications.

    Again, more than happy to mail you the required details with some additional commentary if you like and then you can decide how best to handle.

    In the meantime, a couple of things – first, I’ve asked a policy colleague to take a closer look at the guest PUS post and see if they can give more detailed and informative responses than I can. Back with you on that as soon as is humanly possible.

    Also, this Friday, I’m told, the full Science & Society strategy is to be published. It’s a UK govt strategy, of which DIUS is a part, and it includes details on improving engagement with the science community. I don’t have the details at this stage but will post link as soon as I see it (I’m not in the office on Friday so you may well see it before I do).

    BTW, re meeting – doesn’t matter if you’re not in London (tho’ happy to meet anyone who is, of course) – let me know if you want to set something up elsewhere. It’s “UK” government, not “London,” mere geography should not get in the way…

    More soon,

    Elliot

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