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Science policy: a view from school age pupils

What happens when 14 to 18 year old pupils are faced with science policy issues? Is it wise to expect them to answer mighty questions that cause many an experienced policy maker or scientist to scratch their heads? Particularly when it comes to subjects of much heated debate. Can science and technology help bring us out of the economic crisis? What areas of science research should be prioritised? Should the public have a say in investment in science and technology?

There are certainly no easy answers to these questions. Yet, last November, the Royal Institution L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre in London, UK, invited 150 teenagers to find out. They all took part to what was dubbed a one day unconference.

The format of the event was quite unconventional. The students were thrown into the deep end, rather than receiving information and having limited opportunity to ask questions, let alone influence the trajectory of the discussion, like at usual conferences. Instead, they were asked to work out what they thought the upcoming issues were in science policy. They were also required to give some thought on how these issues might be tackled.

All opinions and ideas were live tweeted to increase the flow of dialogue and share it with others who were unable to attend.

I was fortunate enough to be on the panel of experts. We had the delightful task of hearing the main conclusions and recommendations of the day. It was genuinely uplifting to see such young students developing a ‘voice’ on science policy in such a short period of time.

As someone involved at the coal face of ‘science and society’ issues, I was particularly inspired by the mature discussion around the publics’ involvement with R&D. In summary, yes they thought it was a good thing but, they said, there also need to be more schemes and opportunities to counter the publics’ apathy towards science. They perceived it as a direct threat to science research itself too.

Perhaps, however, the best piece of evidence in favour of developing and nurturing a young scientific voice comes from the students themselves: “I learnt a lot about the issues my generation will have to face in the future and how complex they can be to solve,” said one of the attendees, adding : “It was a good chance for us to voice our opinions and have discussions with people from other schools”

Dr Gail Cardew, Director of Science and Education, The Royal Institution

Featured image credit: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock

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