A public dialogue convened by the Babraham Institute to prioritise future research and projects, to inform BI's science strategy and commitment to reporting for the Openness in Animal Research, and to guide the development of BI's 2017-2022 science & public engagement strategy.
Problems and Purpose
The Babraham Institute (BI) is a world leader in life science research, generating new knowledge about the biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health and wellbeing. In May 2015, it commenced a public dialogue project, the aim of which was to feed in the BI’s 2017-22 science and public engagement strategy. The project was commission by the BI and the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC), with support from Sciencewise. The public dialogue projects took place in Birmingham and Cambridge in the UK, involving 43 public participants, 24 stakeholders, and 14 experts.
The Babraham Institute has a strong programme and history of science communication, it regularly engages in outreach activities, annual events and commitments to local schools and communities. It aims to increase its two-way engagement with the public so that BI can make decisions informed by a wide range of views and values. The Institute therefore aims to develop mechanisms that provide links from public and stakeholder engagement back into its research and its impacts.
The public dialogue sought to take on board public opinion to help prioritise research areas and plans for the future. It aimed to inform BI’s science strategy and feed into its commitment to and reporting for the Openness in Animal Research in the UK Concordat.
The key objectives for the elements of the public dialogue covered by the Sciencewise grant are:
- To engage in dialogue with a balanced recruited sample of lay public about the challenges and opportunities of basic molecular biology research into aging with discussion of the ethics around these areas
- To gain insight and understanding from the public that will directly feed into and influence BI’s scientific strategy
- To raise awareness and highlight the importance of the Institute and its science with stakeholders
- To gain an understanding of how the public and stakeholders view Babraham’s work
- To demonstrate best practice in openness/responsiveness and social responsibility
Background History and Context
The Babraham Institute (BI) is one of eight Institutes that receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The BBSRC is one of seven research councils that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK), and is funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The research that is carried out by BI generates new knowledge of the biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development, and the maintenance of health and wellbeing. It also supports the BBSRC's mission to drive advances in fundamental bioscience such as how cells and organisms develop and respond to the environment. A particular focus is how we age and the study of underlying mechanisms controlling this process, for example, how the elderly respond differently to infection compared to the young.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. BBSRC co-funded and commissioned the public dialogue.
The Babraham Institute is an independent life sciences institute that aims to be an international leader in research focusing on basic cell and molecular biology with an emphasis on healthy ageing through the human lifecycle is co-funding and managing the public dialogue. BI co-funded and managed the public dialogue.
Ipsos MORI, part of the Ipsos Group, is a leading UK research company, specialising in social & political research and public dialogue on complex and sensitive issues. Ipsos MORI was the delivery contractor for the dialogue.
Icarus provides professional support, policy advice and direct delivery, and was the evaluation contractor for the dialogue.
Sciencewise is a programme funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It provides assistance to policy makers to carry out public dialogues to inform decision making on science and technology issues.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Total public participants: 43
Total stakeholders: 24
Total experts: 14
Ipsos MORI delivered public dialogue workshops during summer 2015. Two initial workshops were held with a total of 43 members of the public in July, one in Birmingham (attended by 18 members of the public and five BI scientists) and the second in Cambridge (attended by 25 members of the public and seven BI scientists). A further workshop was reconvened in Cambridge in mid-September for all participants of both initial workshops (attended by 41 members of the public and seven BI scientists).
Purposive sampling was the approach used to recruit participants; the intention was to select a cross section of people who were largely reflective of the local population. Participants were recruited to reflect the spread of ages, gender, life stages, socio-demographic segments, and ethnicities of Birmingham and Cambridge, respectively.
The participants were recruited on the street by Ipsos MORI recruiters. Recruiters used a screener which ensured a variety of demographic groups were represented, and that those with a close connection to the subject matter of the Babraham Institute were excluded, as well as any people who were active members of anti-animal research groups. Participants voluntarily joined the process, time-consuming as it was; and they were incentivised with a thank-you gift of money for giving up their time and to cover their expenses.
Methods and Tools Used
In the dialogue events, participants worked in breakout groups and plenary sessions, structured by discussion guides (appended). Each section of each day and each discussion in each sub-group provided a different facet of the overall dialogue.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The timeline of the development and delivery of the dialogue project and subsequent reporting and evaluation are outlined below:
Stimulus Development (End of May- Mid July, 2015)
4th June: Researcher Day
Ipsos Mori ran three 90 minute workshop sessions, that allowed 34 BI researchers to engage with the study, understand its purpose and provide detailed information about their work.
17th June: Advisory Group Meeting
Funders and key partners met to discuss proposed approach to reporting and dissemination strategy, continuing to liaise with the project team on draft stimulus material.
3rd July: External Stakeholder Workshop
Ipsos Mori ran a half day workshop with 8 external stakeholders, representing organisations with an interest in BI’s work.
12 and 13 July: Event 1, one day workshops in Birmingham and Cambridge
Ipsos MORI held public dialogues in Birmingham (18 participants and 5 BI researchers) and Cambridge (25 participants and 6 BI researchers) to inform participants and begin discussions on contemporary bioscience research issues.
Stimulus Refinement (End of July/Beginning of September: Interim Report)
8th September: Advisory Group Meeting
12th September: Event 2, reconvened dialogue in Cambridge
41 participants and 7 BI researchers discussed case studies again but related the work to over-arching issues relevant to basic bioscience
- November: Final Report Published
- 18th November: Stakeholder Workshop
- Case study published - March 2016
- Evaluation report published - January 2016
- Public dialogue report published - December 2015
- Analysis and report writing - November 2015
- Dialogue activities ongoing - July 2015
- Delivery and evaluation specialists appointed - June 2015
The public dialogue established the following views from the public
EVENT 1 - July 12-13, 2015
Event 1 was designed to inform participants about the nature of Babraham Institute’s work and begin discussion and debate around key issues facing the bioscience community today, in particular:
- public principles and values when it comes to fundamental bioscience;
- priorities around approaches to ageing research; and
- moral and social conundrums which the public feel impact on research in these areas.
The key question for Event 1 was: “How can BI’s fundamental bioscience help people lead long and healthy lives?” To engage participants with Babraham’s work, a selection of case studies covering examples of projects across its four strategic programmes were presented, as well as some limited information about the basic molecular and cellular processes underlying ageing and disease.
The stimuli for these sections were produced with input from the Babraham Institute project team, external stakeholders, and Advisory Group. The Ipsos MORI team worked together with specialist science writers ensuring language used in all stimuli was as accessible as possible to the general public, with iterations made based on comments from the Babraham researchers working in the relevant areas, to ensure the case studies remained scientifically accurate.
At the end of event 1, participants were set a ‘Homework task’ to complete; this not only maintained involvement in the time before the reconvened Event, but also encouraged participants to spend time reflecting on the issues. The task included:
- exploring the Babraham Institute’s ‘Immune Army’ microsite designed for public engagement events;
- researching ‘how science can help ageing’ online; and
- interviewing a friend about their experience of ageing.
EVENT 2 - September 12, 2015
The day-long, reconvened Event 2 discussed case studies again but related the work to over-arching issues relevant to basic bioscience. In particular:
- the experiences of a scientist, including motivation, career path, funding structures; principles drawn out from responses to the case studies, that BI should consider in its science strategy;
- the funding of basic bioscience research;
- Babraham’s use of animals in research; and
- different aspects of public involvement, discussing ideas for different types of engagement from informing the public about Babraham’s work through to co-developing strategy.
Overall views of science (objectives 3 and 4)
Most participants started with a low awareness of scientific research, however by the end of the dialogue most wanted to protect and support the function of bioscience research.
Views on ageing (objectives 1, 2 and 3)
Participants described aging as factors which affect people in old age rather than a process that happens through life.
- They believed that physical, mental and social elements interconnected and all contribute to ageing.
- Ageing well was considered to be (to some extent) under individual control, based on making good health choices through life.
- Ageing has some positive side effects (like wisdom and appreciation of your body), so they saw downsides as well as benefits to science which seeks to combat the ageing process.
Views on challenges for science (Objectives 2 and 5)
Disease and illnesses were seen as unfair, unnatural and a challenge to be beaten by science (particularly familiar threats like cancer and Alzheimer’s).
The emergent concept of epigenetics was seen as a key frontier for science. This was the idea that sparked the most interest for participants.
Implications for BI’s science strategy (objectives 2 and 5)
Participants wanted BI to work to combat inequalities in health outcomes because thy felt that illness and diseases are inherently unfair in their effects.
- Focusing on epigenetics was seen as a high priority by participants.
- BI could consider aging research in its social context.
Implications for BI’s public engagement (objective 2)
- Consulting the public about delaying illness and increasing resilience
- Consulting the public about ageing of people, not of cells
- Consulting the public about equipping people with information they need to make good choices and increase their own well-being.
Participants presented the following views on strategy concerning 6 scientific principles and 2 principles of governance
Scientific principles (in order of strength of feeling): Research should….
- be fundamental, in-depth and a “building block” with potential for greatest increase in knowledge
- be fair, helping the greatest number and/or the most vulnerable and provide outcomes which are distributed fairly
- enable collaborations from internal to global/deliver good value for money by engaging both the scientific community and the public
- help people control their health through giving them understanding/tools to help future generations too
- work to increase quality of life and healthy ageing through life
- bring commercial benefits to the Institute to enable more research to be conducted
Issue 6 tended to polarise, and was the supported by some and contested by others.
In addition, the following governance principles were identified:
- They wanted Babraham to support projects which are in the public interest and which are most likely to deliver on the priorities identified above, when applying for grants.
- If the Institute is committed to accountability, it needs to enable scrutiny to make this commitment credible. This could involve taking account of a number of different voices (academic, media, lay, external experts) to bring a wider discussion of the interests of different stakeholders into strategy-setting.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The most immediate impact from the dialogue was that the new draft of BI’s public engagement strategy incorporated recommendations from the dialogue process, informing BI’s activities at three levels: communication, consultation and participation – in contrast to BI’s traditional approach of one way communications with the public.
Immediate impacts on public participants included that 90% said they would be more willing to come to another dialogue event as a result of being involved in these events; 82% said they would be more likely to take an interest in the science discussed; 77% said they had a much better understanding about the science and the key areas of research (a further 23% said they had a bit more understanding).
There was a short timescale between the production of the findings of the report and the impact research. The evaluation of the impact therefore acknowledges that there has been little opportunity for impacts to come to fruition, nevertheless it highlights the following key findings at the time of evaluation.
The potential for the findings to influence the content of BI’s science strategy are limited.
There is a lack of detail and specific direction in the findings from the public dialogue project that could directly influence the content of the science strategy. For example, the ‘key takeaways’ from the final report regarding the science strategy are relatively generic, and some of the public views were contradictory. Also, BI’s science strategy has to be aligned with BBSRC’s strategic priorities so there is limited scope for change.
There is potential for the findings to influence the decision-making processes for the science strategy.
This would be possible by applying the principles that were developed following the deliberations and exercise at the dialogue workshops: there are six scientific principles and two governance principles.
The findings have influenced BI’s public engagement strategy.
BI has drafted a new public engagement strategy that incorporates recommendations, published in 2016.
There is potential for the findings to influence the policies or work of other organisations.
A number of signs demonstrate the potential for the findings of the public dialogue process to influence the policies or work of other organisations. For example, representatives from ten organisations, including BIS and BBSRC, attended the dissemination event and were engaged in deliberations about the findings from the project; the findings have been shared with the EU LIFE programme and received a very positive response; the British Society for Immunology is interested in the work and sees the opportunity for it to inform their work in a number of ways; Cardiff University has included BI in a grant bid as a direct result of the public dialogue project.
The findings have the potential to influence the strategic direction of BIS and BBSRC.
The findings include messages that have some significance for BIS and BBSRC. These are that the public supports the use of public money to support fundamental research and values it alongside translational research; and the public trusts scientists to take decisions about where their research priorities should lie.
The evaluation concluded that a final dissemination event, designed to share the dialogue results with stakeholders and which included individuals from 10 different organisations, was “an extremely useful meeting, one that engaged the attendees in constructive discussion about the findings of the process in particular and how they can have an impact for both BI and attendees’ organisations.”
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The case study of the project identified the following lessons from the project.
What worked well
External stakeholders, BI scientists and Advisory Group members all helped frame the stimulus material and workshop design. There were challenges in capturing everyone’s insights and the final decisions about the shape of the design were taken by BI’s project team working alongside the dialogue contractor.
Considerable effort was made within the project to develop the stimulus materials for the workshops – the case studies, slide sets, handouts and task descriptions. The materials stimulated interest in the topic and helped to keep discussions focused. The materials supported the learning and deliberations, and were of interest to the participants.
The content of the public workshops was pitched at a level that a significant majority of participants could understand. As a result, they felt able to participate in the deliberations during the initial workshops and could build on this to start reaching conclusions about BI’s work in the reconvened workshop. The ‘translation’ from scientific language into a form that was understandable by those encountering it for the first time was largely extremely effective, and the quality of the conversational contributions from BI’s scientists was generally accessible and engaging.
What worked less well
Establishing a key question that summarises the public dialogue objectives in an understandable format is a key step. Some concerns were raised about whether this question needed further refinement to ensure it reflected BI’s core activity in basic science (rather than translational research) and could, therefore, produce results that would be better aligned with BI’s science strategy.
There were noticeable differences in the baseline scientific/ research knowledge between the participants at the two locations – overall, those from Cambridge were more knowledgeable. The recruitment used a purposive sampling methodology and was intended to be reflective of the local population. Had the intention been to reflect the UK population as a whole, then this approach to recruitment and sampling would not have been appropriate.
Evaluation report conclusion
In general terms, the public dialogue project has achieved what it set out to do and can be judged as a success. In moving forward, BI should consider how it formally responds to the final report. This poses a series of questions and recommendations to BI and, for the sake of completeness, it is recommended that the Institute publishes a response that indicates how and / or if it will deal with each one.
While the project was not successful in producing findings to inform the content of BI’s science strategy, there is scope to influence how decisions about the science strategy are taken, and the learning has already been included in the new public engagement strategy for the Institute.
The original submission of this case entry was adapted from the Sciencewise archived resources (attached). It has since been edited and expanded by the Participedia community and does not necessarily reflect the views of Sciencewise.