White Paper: Scientists have to engage with the public

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The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has taken significant steps to encourage scientists to engage with the general public. Cabinet approved a DST White Paper containing these steps and other science related policies last week.

According to the White Paper, government will appoint a National Coordinator of Science Engagement to improve collaboration between the DST, all its entities, higher education and the private sector. It will also require government departments that have substantial Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) components to spend a certain percentage of their budgets on raising science awareness.

These moves are largely aimed at reducing the communications gap between scientists and the public. Research shows that many South Africans are either suspicious of scientists and their activities or believe that science is too hard and should be done elsewhere. This widespread antipathy towards science is one of the reasons that not enough high school pupils excel in the sciences in their matric exams.

The DST is adamant that more students should be studying the sciences at universities. This country needs more young people qualified in STIs to ensure its future development. However young people cannot do science if they feel alienated from laboratories and research institutions.

For these reasons, the DST has instituted the White Paper engagement measures in an attempt to improve the relationship between scientists and non-scientists. It will continue to support existing science centres around the country and will develop plans for “more strategically positioned science centres, including world-class national flagship science centres or museums”. The Department says that these centres will require private sector co- funding.

The White Paper includes significant incentives for individual researchers to interact with non-scientists. The South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions will award continuing professional development points to scientists who engage in science engagement activities.

The DST will also make it mandatory for recipients of certain research and training grants to communicate their findings to the public.

The White Paper implicitly acknowledges that scientists and researchers are not trained in engagement skills by committing the Department to providing these skills. Once scientists have been trained they will then help to introduce developmentally appropriate engagement activities and projects for both adults and school learners.

Government aims to have engagement skills included in the curricula of science and technology students in the higher education sector.

While these moves are seen to be in the interests of the greater good of the South African public, not all scientists feel that they have a professional obligation to communicate with non-scientists.

They argue that they are paid to do research, and they are happy to do so without any extraneous
requirements for public engagement.

The counter argument to this is that since scientists are being funded by taxpayers they are accountable to their funders and should therefore take public engagement seriously.

Government initiatives obliging scientists to engage with the public are not unique as similar measures are in place in the United States and several European countries.

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