The foundation of public funding for science was significantly influenced by a 1945 US Government report titled “Science, The Endless Frontier”, which described how fundamental scientific research had made miraculous improvements to day-to-day life. Such improvements included the creation of new industries and materials, greater economic opportunities, and substantial progress in health and treatment of diseases. The report foresaw a “social contract”, largely implemented since, that governments would provide funding and autonomy to scientists with the expectation that the benefits to society would naturally follow. Consequently, this social contract between science and the public was the topic of a panel discussion at the recent 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC 2020) and a recurring theme throughout the conference.

In recent years, there has been more of a push for policy-makers and scientists to explore how science can benefit society and align their work for the public good. Funding agencies increasingly require that research be published in open-access journals where results will be available to the public at no cost. This trend is accelerating; major publishers announced last year initiatives for research on COVID-19 to be open-access by default. The rise of pre-print servers has also increased the availability of science, as well as fostered the increase of scientific collaboration. All these efforts were supported by a conviction that broader access to science will translate into benefits to society.

Yet Dr. Shobita Parthasarathy, a panellist at CSPC 2020, reminded attendees of the sobering reality of our historical shortcomings in research on topics, such as women’s health, AIDS, and structural inequality. If science is to be better understood, scientists must be incentivized to build relationships with local communities. In addition to improving understanding and confidence in science, broader engagement has the potential to improve research as well.  Stronger relationships between scientists and diverse communities, including minorities and marginalized groups, will produce science that is better oriented to help society holistically.

It is important to understand improved access to science may not necessarily translate to improved public engagement. While initiatives such as citizen science and open science aim to improve relationships between scientists and communities there is still room for improvement. Increasingly, scientists are encouraged to think outside of the scientific community at conferences that cover science communication, and students are asked to communicate the impact and benefits of their work in competitions like the 3-Minute Thesis. However, as noted by panellist Rhonda Moore, it is still possible for a scientist to be trained in one institution under the direction of one professor with little incentive to engage outside their community.

In evaluating the quality and impact of science, we would do well to ask more often about its impact on everyday people. Science will be more effective as it reaches broader audiences, but also, as public engagement attunes scientists to social needs and challenges. As scientists engage with their communities, they can be more active participants with science’s social contract.