Sense About Science, a U.K.-based charity, works to put science and evidence in the hands of the public. We are a source of information, we challenge misinformation, and we champion sound science and evidence. And of course, we can’t do that without the help of scientists, academics, and experts in various fields. For the last decade, Sense About Science has campaigned to make scientific evidence higher on the public agenda. Over 6,000 scientific researchers and public supporters and hundreds of organizations have worked with us to encourage different communities to engage with evidence and expertise. Our international Voice of Young Science network of postdoctoral researchers also plays a big part.
Ask for Evidence
For scientific knowledge to progress, scientists need to share their research findings with other scientists through publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals. But what happens next? The wider impact and ultimate reach of scientific research to a public audience might be hard to imagine. Scientific research might end up being used or misused as evidence for policy claims, adverts, or in the media, prompting discussion by a public audience.
“Wind farms cause greater pollution”
“Fears over gender bender chemical in our food packaging”
“Chlorine in tap water ‘nearly doubles the risk of birth defects'"
We equip people with tools to question the claims they see, and work with scientists to shed light on understanding the answer. People are constantly faced with scientific claims in policy statements, media, and advertising. Many of these are misleading and some can be costly or cause harm. And until now, commentators and decision makers have been under very little pressure to provide rigorous scientific evidence for the claims they make. Over the past year, our Ask for Evidence campaign has started helping people to request the evidence behind any claims they see. Through a new website, anyone can quickly and easily ask for evidence for a claim on a shampoo bottle, or police adverts about crime rates. People have been asking organizations for evidence, and scientists have been helping them make sense of the responses they get.
Standing up for science
At Sense About Science, we support scientists to get involved in public discussion about science and evidence, particularly on issues which are divisive and where evidence is missing from the debate. Our experience has shown us the importance of engaging in public discussion about research. Plant science, and particularly genetic modification, is one subject where scientists might fear engaging with the public – they know not all responses will be positive. But when a campaign group threatened to destroy a GM wheat crop trial at Rothamsted Research, the scientists appealed for discussion, not destruction of the trial, and the public came out in support. Sense About Science supported these scientists to answer all the questions that people had about GM, even when they were tied up with assumptions or misconceptions. Tackling the public’s questions head on meant there was an opportunity for engagement, and a useful resource that remains online. For us, it is an example of the importance of sharing what we know and how, and has encouraged us to be “Public-led, expert-fed”, which means addressing directly the questions and issues people raise. The only way to turn the tide on misleading claims and put evidence at the heart of public life is to enable more people to understand what constitutes good evidence and to demand it from public figures and companies. You don’t need many people asking for evidence to raise the expectation of evidence in public life. How can we make companies, politicians, commentators, and official bodies accountable for the claims they make? If they want us to vote for them, believe them, or buy their products, then we should ask for evidence.