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Oh no, they love us after all!

...or, why the OST/Wellcome Report is a milestone in the history of science public relations...

Late last year, a much-awaited report by the Wellcome Trust and the Office of Sicence & Technology (OST) was finally published. It was the first ever in-depth analysis of public attitudes to science in Britain, and it allows us for the first time to say things about public attitudes that are based on real evidence, and not hearsay or instinct.

The results surprised and shocked many scientists. It appears that the British public is not in the least anti-science; scientists are loved and admired for their work; news about their work is a source of amazement; most people (including those who do not care personally) think science and technology (and even blue-skies research) is important to the country and to the individual and should be paid for out of taxes. Three quarters believe science is a good career prospect. And university scientists are especially valued for their independence of mind and of status.

These revolutionary findings are going to take time to sink in. The recent St. Valentine’s Day Parliamentary event, in which the Geological Society joined with many other scientific and engineering bodies in a mass lobby of political parties, demonstrated this well. It was clear from the short speeches given by senior scientists and party spokesmen, that even here the OST/Wellcome findings had so far made no impression at all. Every assertion made by both politicians and scientists about public and media attitudes was false. Before, the science PR officer or journalist could only feel these hoary attitudes to be mistaken. Now, thanks to this report, we can prove it.

There is a particular reason why the report will make slow progress among scientists. The fact that they and their work have broad approval ratings that estate agents, solicitors and surveyors (and these days, perhaps even GPs) would give their eyeteeth for, is often being met with incomprehension and disbelief. Truth is, a lot of scientists secretly rather like being martyrs in their cause (see below) because frankly it is easier to feel that way.

Over many years now, and especially since Shirley Williams and her 13 Points, scientists have slowly developed a bunker mentality. Aware that they needed to come out and fight their corner, but fearful to participate in a task for which they felt unqualified, they have used the supposed disinterest and hostility of the public, and the myth that all journalists are unsympathetic and sensational, to excuse their own failure to engage with either.

Alas for this comfortable piece of self-pity, the OST/Wellcome survey shows there is no failure in the public’s interest, or the media’s willingness to cover science, or (by and large, despite BSE etc.) the public’s faith in scientists, or the (quantitative) level of media coverage. The media and scientists’ own press agents have been telling them this for years and encouraging them to stop tearing their clothes and gnashing their teeth in this self-indulgent way. Perhaps this time, now there is some real evidence, scientists will believe it.

To turn round Shirley Williams’s infamous phrase, the party is not over for scientists at all. It never has been, as far as the public were concerned, even during bleak funding crises that soon followed the election of Mrs Thatcher. Scientists have been invited to the party. The public genuinely wants them there, thinks they are cool and wants to hang out with them.

Now, there really is nothing for it but for scientists to wash and go.

  • Science and the public: a review of science communication and public attitudes to science in Britain. A joint report by the Office of Science & Technology (OST) and the Wellcome Trust. ISBN 1 841290 25 4. Available free as PDF at or from the Marketing Dept., Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road LONFON NW1 2BE. Tel: 020 7611 8651, FAX 020 7611 8545, Email