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20 years of public engagement

20 years of public engagement - 30 April 2014. CambPlants Initiative
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

BBSRC has supported world-leading bioscience for over two decades. In a series of articles during its 20th anniversary, we will be exploring a variety of ways that BBSRC helps to deliver impact from research. In this article we look at public engagement.

Why is this area important?

Public engagement and dialogue is a vital part of BBSRC's strategy which recognises that the full impact of bioscience will not be realised unless society is engaged.

Actively undertaking public engagement activities and being responsive to public views about research and practice is instrumental to BBSRC as a publicly funded body. It is right not only for BBSRC to tell people about how it invests public money, but also to give them the opportunity to influence how it is invested in bioscience.

Bioenergy public dialogue, December 2013. Image: CambPlants Initiative
Bioenergy public dialogue, December 2013. Image: CambPlants Initiative

UK bioscience benefits from a great deal of public and political support, and is trusted to deliver benefits for society, as well as the UK economy. By being open and transparent, allowing the public a voice in decision making allows BBSRC to help maintain this trust. A growing number of advances in bioscience, including stem cells, genetic modification and synthetic biology, hold great promise to increase prosperity and improve lives. They also pose great challenges that must be addressed by society as a whole.

Engagement provides opportunities to listen and respond to a growing number of viewpoints as decisions are made. This helps BBSRC to make better and more robust choices, ensuring that the research remains socially relevant with greater impact.

How has BBSRC contributed over the last 20 years?

BBSRC has a long history of engaging the public in its direction and decision making.

Its formation in 1994 was marked with the UK's first ever consensus conference (on plant biotechnology), demonstrating commitment in helping the public to influence affairs and setting the tone for the next twenty years.

Since then, BBSRC has run 14 public dialogue or attitudinal studies on a diverse range of topics, working with an array of partners from Foresight and other Research Councils to think tanks and government departments. A range of different approaches have been used, from citizens' juries and focus groups, to in depth deliberative workshops, each of which have provided knowledge of how to engage the public with research.

The findings of BBSRC's public engagement activities have also contributed a great deal to its understanding of public views. This has been instrumental in the development of BBSRC's funding strategies and ways of working, as well as informing the work of others in the UK and abroad.

BBSRC has worked with its research community and its strategically-funded institutes to build their capacity and capability to engage meaningfully with the public. Two recent and exciting developments are the establishment of public engagement training, and Rothamsted Research's recent success in bidding for BIS Sciencewise funding to run a public dialogue activity around industry-funded research.

What has changed and how has BBSRC influenced this?

BBSRC has led the UK research community in public dialogue practice and is a recognised international expert having advised, amongst others, the European Commission and US institutions.

Since 1994, the field of public engagement has changed significantly. Where BBSRC and others used to focus on informing members of the public about research to dispel their concerns about new technologies, BBSRC now looks to engage in discussion, listening and responding to public hopes and concerns.

The BBSRC Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel has, together with its predecessors, embedded consideration of social and ethical issues in BBSRC's strategy for over ten years. This has provided a direct and formal route for public dialogue to influence BBSRC. BBSRC has demonstrated the value of including public views in decision making processes and shown how this might be achieved as demonstrated by the BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Dialogue in 2010.

BBSRC has often been at the leading edge of innovative practice. Most recently BBSRC has developed and piloted a new distributed approach to dialogue, aiming to involve more of the public and researchers in an evolving conversation around bioenergy in a cost effective manner.

BBSRC has also worked with other Research Councils through RCUK to embed public engagement in universities.


Stem Cell DIalogue report cover
SynBio Dialogue report cover
  • 1994 - UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology
    The first UK Consensus Conference. A panel of 16 lay volunteers set the agenda for the conference, chose the expert witnesses who were called to attend, conducted the questioning and finally delivered their verdict on plant biotechnology in a written report.
  • 2005 - Public attitudes to diet and health research
    BBSRC and the Institute of Food Research commissioned a study to explore public attitudes and priorities on funding for diet and health research. Findings from the study have informed development of BBSRC's strategy for food research. The study highlighted the concerns of some people about a potential conflict of interest between industrial motives for funding research and public interest. Another study, the "Attitudes to industry-funded research" was commissioned to explore this further.
  • 2008 - Stem cell dialogue project
    BBSRC and the Medical Research Council, with funding from Sciencewise commissioned a public and stakeholder dialogue on stem cell research in the UK. The study involved 200 members of the public who participated in workshops in London, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle and Edinburgh. In addition, nearly 50 stakeholders were interviewed from fields such as science, medicine, industry, ethics and religion.
  • 2010 - BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Dialogue
    A large scale public dialogue was carried out whilst synthetic biology was very much an emerging field. The findings have been very influential in the development of the research area in the way that the synthetic biology community engages with the social and ethical issues the research raises.
  • 2013 - Bioenergy public dialogue
    Bioenergy Dialogue report cover
    A pilot project to test a distributed model for public dialogue where researchers and others were asked to use a toolkit to run dialogue events around the country.
  • 2014 - Rothamsted Research - Working with industry
    A Sciencewise supported dialogue to explore developing guiding principles for how Rothamsted should work with industry.

What next?

Over recent years, BBSRC has moved away from topic-based engagement, to engagement focused on strategic decision making. Furthermore, there are opportunities for building on recent small scale dialogues such as the Food, Nutrition and Health dialogue as a model for public engagement with BBSRC strategy.

Activities such as the Rothamsted Research 'Working with industry' dialogue will provide lessons for other BBSRC-funded institutes looking to develop their public engagement practices.

BBSRC will work to ensure that public engagement will continue to become more embedded in the way that BBSRC and BBSRC-funded researchers work, and will look to explore the possibilities for doing this more effectively.


Notes to editors

BBSRC's dialogue activities (stem cells, synthetic biology and bioenergy dialogues) were supported by Sciencewise.

Tags: 20 years of bioscience people policy feature