At JIC, public views are at the heart of our research strategy.
During 2015, scientists at the John Innes Centre carried out a public dialogue project to identify those factors the public would like us to take into consideration when planning our science programmes.
As a publicly-funded institute, it is important that people are involved in these discussions with scientists and that we reflect on public opinion. Engaging with the public is an important part of our overall mission statement.
We see some clear principles emerging – we are already thinking about these and how they will become embedded in our science strategy.
1. Preserve the right to do basic, curiosity-driven research
Fundamental discoveries in bioscience underpin scientific understanding and may lead to new breakthroughs. Much of JIC’s research is in this area; an example is the work with the soil bacteria Streptomyces which give rise to half the world’s antibiotics in use today. JIC scientists pioneered research in Streptomyces genetics more than 60 years ago and this work has contributed greatly to human health.
‘The greatest discoveries of our time came from people’s curiosity and wanting to satisfy it’- Online community
“It’s a case of if you don’t dig you aren’t going to find it. There is a reason that things are here, and that’s why we have scientists.” Birmingham
2. Consider research with the greatest scope to tackle the most serious global problems
Research has implications with far-reaching impact. For example, JIC’s wheat research has led to crop improvements in countries where millions of people struggle to produce enough to feed their families. The public would like JIC to continue a focus in this area, consider the applications of science that will improve lives for the greatest number of people and tackle diseases that are most severe in their effects.
‘Research to address crop production worldwide is more important as this affects more people than people in the UK.’- Online Principles Task
‘Solve world poverty’ / ‘Save lives! [Antibiotics]’ - Norwich
3. Consider who stands to gain from the outcomes of JIC research
The public felt it was important to consider potential end beneficiaries at the start of research programmes, so that JIC could be accountable to the public by considering consequences that may arise from research decisions.
How might the institute’s decisions affect the world longer term?’ - Stakeholder workshop / follow up interviews
‘Science influences the market and the market influences science’ - Online group
4. Use public money to address areas of interest that commercial interests will not
The public felt that JIC, as a publicly-funded institute, should consider research which may lie outside of the commercial sphere. For example, participants would like to see scientists taking account of the interests of small scale farmers as well as of multinational businesses, helping UK farmers as well as those abroad, and researching critical illnesses affecting UK citizens alongside global health.
‘I think there are enough people doing research to bring products to market so I really appreciate curiosity driven research.’ - Online principles
‘(It’s about) world communications, we’re doing our little piece, they’re doing theirs, but what if we could do it all together and share it, we might be able to progress more.’ - Norwich
5. Continue to recruit the brightest and the best
The public thought the creative and non-hierarchical structure throughout JIC was inspiring and wish the institute to continue to use broad recruitment criteria; choosing new scientists who are bright and interested rather than attempting to fill specific niche positions. They were supportive of how JIC operates, which reinforces the strength in science.
‘I like the idea of how you recruit. If you are thinking outside the box and just recruiting generally bright people it is good.’ - Birmingham
‘Building expertise in new fields, just like this scientist, who was telling us what she was doing, it’s new and she’s bringing her expertise…’ - Birmingham
6. Plan for flexibility to tackle the unforeseen
Although science programmes are long in their design and realisation, the public would like JIC to be mindful of emerging challenges, like global disease epidemics, and retain the flexibility to redeploy resources as fresh challenges arise.
‘At the moment JIC is more early stage than immediate. If, for example, Oxfam were funding research, they would look at what the crisis of the time is, like Sudan.’ - Norwich
‘I don’t think they can look too far into the future now, because the world is changing.’ - Birmingham
The dialogue project was conducted by Ipsos MORI and involved more than 450 members of the public in public workshop and online activities. It was funded by JIC, the institute’s main funding partner the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and Sciencewise - the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and emerging technology issues. The process and report are undergoing independent evaluation by Gene Rowe and Richard Watermeyer.
The dialogue project was innovative in its design, which strove for impact at an institutional level and combined face-to-face workshops with a sustained online phase of webchats, online tasks and independently-hosted discussions. The face-to-face workshops, in Norwich and Birmingham, involved JIC researchers and 35 members of the public recruited to create a group which broadly reflects the general public, while 420 people signed up to take part in the online phase. In addition, Ipsos MORI consulted 17 other previously-conducted dialogue studies and ran an external advisory group of nine representatives of interested stakeholder groups.