26 January 2007

Sciencewise – or may be sciencedumb

For a movement that strives to reach out to a wider public, the PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology) brigade knows how to shoot itself in the foot. For example, it is hard to know what to make of this:

"...creating excellence in public dialogue to inform better policy"
What does it mean? How do you "inform policy"? What is the guff about "creating excellence"?

Here's are simpler alternatives that say the same thing:
"... public dialogue for better policy"

"... better policy through public dialoque"
You could even make it truly revolutionary with something like:
"... listening to people for better policy"
Not great, but that's because the starting point doesn't help. It would be better to come up with something altogether more punter friendly. It might also help to add what policy they are on about here rather than deeper down in the page. Catchall slogans like that are meaningless.

Life is too short to dismember the page's title:
Building the commitment and capacity of government to engage in public dialogue on scientific developments
Go on, unpick that one yourself. Catchy isn't it.

The first sentence on the page, a mere 41 words, is not much better. It rambles on, saying, among other things, that the idea is that it "helps policy makers in Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform decision-making in emerging areas of science and technology".

For a start, they mean "help to commission". In general that's how you should use "help" in this sort of context. Often you can get away without the "to" but in this case it is essential if you don't want the reader to lose the thread. Good grief they even get it right when they they say "to inform decision-making" although once again they are informing something decidedly odd. You can inform "decision makers," perhaps even "the decision making process," but not decision making.

And what are these "emerging areas of science and technology"? What makes them so important? Why put it in unexplained? Why can't we talk about the old areas of science and technology?

All this, and more is on a new venture, Sciencewise "funded by the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI) at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)".

I wouldn't go on about stilted writing in webland, such is its prevalence, were it not for the fact that this is supposed to be about communication and talking to, or is it at, the public. The underlying idea also seems to be pretty sound, which makes it all the more sad that the front door for the venture is so intimidating.

This page reads like one of those reports – written, I might say, without the help of a professional to keep out waffle – used to justify throwing more money on to the PEST bandwagon.

Sad, really, that after 20 years or more PEST has sunk to such depths. Those of us who kicked it off, when they used the term understanding rather than engagement, just wanted to persuade people to take science, engineering and technology more seriously. We've won that battle in some important circles. The Treasury, for example, now sees the value of investing in R&D. But you won't get much further if you obfuscate like that.

The danger of falling into the jargon trap, where only the initiated can understand the language, is that it intimidates newcomers. It doesn't have to be like that. Indeed, the DTI proves as much in its own press announcement of the new venture.

The press release that unleashed this stuff on to the world tells us that the initiative is "designed to get the nation talking about the science and technology of the future". As this shows, the press release is written in English, which just goes to show that you can get this sort of thing right if you put professionals on the case.

The press release says that "Community groups, schools, families and friends up and down the country are invited to get together in village halls, classrooms, living rooms and pubs to have their own sciencehorizons discussions using the free packs." Great. Let's hope they don't go near the web site. With luck they will, instead, land on sciencehorizons, "a national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society".

Saying all this may screw up my chances of getting any more work out of the DTI, but someone has to warn them that it is important to use language that matches the messages you want to convey.

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