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When is the right time to engage with the public on issues around science policy? 19.02.15

Proof guest blog by Fiona Auty, Head of Communications at the National Physical Laboratory

The UK Government recently held a public dialogue to understand how people feel about the connection between the Sun and time. Participants were asked whether they believe that timekeeping should be intrinsically linked with the Earth’s rotation, or whether our increasingly digital world has made this relationship irrelevant?

earth and sun pic

The timing (sorry!) was apt for two reasons. Firstly, because a leap second is due to be inserted into the timescale this June. This will be the 26th leap second since they began in 1972, designed to keep official time linked to the Sun and the Earth’s rotation.  Secondly, later in the year, the international community is due to make a historic decision on whether to stop adding the leap seconds that maintain this link.

Rather than leave this decision to the experts, the Government wanted to canvas opinion from the public, to give people the chance to input into its policy on this matter. Just stopping the link between civil time and solar time might be perceived as scientists making a fundamental change that affects everyone’s lives, without securing widespread support first. This in turn could have the knock on effect of reducing public trust in science.

The findings of the dialogue were summarised in a report by The National Measurement Office (NMO) and showed that the public has a strong preference for continuing to use leap seconds to maintain the link between time and the Sun. It was interesting that the majority of the public mirrored the previous decisions of the experts: that there wasn’t enough evidence to make a reolution to change, so there was no reason to alter the status quo.

Whilst it is gratifying to see the public agree with the measurement experts and scientists, it does beg the question of whether a public engagement is necessary when there is no strong scientific argument either way? As one member of the public said, in this instance: “How can the working man know anything if the experts don’t agree?” This participant’s statement was more apt than he realised, as the subject of leap seconds has been debated for the last 15 years. In 2005, the US proposed the introduction of a leap hour instead, and in 2012 experts at the International Telecommunication Union voted on whether to abolish leap seconds, both were rejected. History shows there is no shortage of debate on the subject of leap seconds, but as yet there has been no clear scientific argument for either.

If we as scientists cannot advise respondents through our research and analysis around an issue, surely all we can expect is an emotive response?  That is precisely what this engagement delivered. There were no winning scientific arguments for retaining or abolishing leap seconds, and issues raised such as cost were viewed skeptically by the public, who saw the guiding hand of commerce in the decision making process. “These are massive multi-national organisations,” claimed one respondent, “they can deal with [adding leap seconds] – they have the financial power to deal with it.” Others were even less sympathetic: “If it costs companies, so what? They can afford it.”

Even if emotion played a bigger part than science in this case, the process of engaging the public in dialogue is worthwhile. It ensures that the UK delegation charged with representing our interests on this matter has a clear mandate from the public. Yet in terms of ensuring public trust in science I can’t help feeling that we would be better served by going to the public only when we have the evidence that enables them to make a truly informed decision. As one of the workshop participants said, “They’re asking for our humble, naïve opinion on subjects that they have researched and are experts on but they can’t agree themselves.”

If you have any questions for Fiona, please tweet @NPL