Public engagement was a key feature in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has been front and foremost in the transition between the old administration and the new.  You only have to check out to see how ideas are evolving on soliciting and evaluating opinions from a broad swath of the population.  The latest is the “Citizens Briefing Book”—top-rated ideas from everyday people, to be delivered to Obama after he is sworn in.

This emphasis on open government, citizen engagement, and the use of enabling web-based technology, is expected to spill over to the new administration big-time.  And as it does, the public discourse will inevitably encompass science and technology—it already has on the incoming administration’s website.  But this raises serious questions:  How do you pull people from all walks of life into conversations about science and technology—which are often complex—and how do you empower them to participate in making effective and influential decisions?

These are questions that have been grappled with in the US for some time—not least in the area of nanotechnology.  The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 for instance had specific provisions

“for public input and outreach to be integrated into the [National Nanotechnology] Program by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate.”

This resulted in two academic Centers for Nanotechnology and Society being established—one at Arizona State University and another at the University of California Santa Barbara.  But apart from the research conducted by these centers, there has been little in the way of true public engagement on nanotechnology in the US, in terms of enabling citizens to enter a two-way dialogue with decision-makers.

Which is why I was particularly interested to read Richard Jones’ account of the UK experience, just posted on his blog Soft Machines.

Richard’s blog is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in public engagement on science, and to make sure you do read it, I’m not going to give away much here. Needless to say, Richard clearly outlines the UK response to the 2004 Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s recommendation that

“a constructive and proactive debate about the future of nanotechnologies should be undertaken now – at a stage when it can inform key decisions about their development and before deeply entrenched or polarised positions appear.”

But it is his assessment of a specific exercise in connecting public engagement to science policy, and the broader implications of this experience, that really grabs the attention.

Richard writes:

“The big question to be asked about any public engagement exercise is “what difference has it made” – has there been any impact on policy? For this to take place there needs to be careful choice of the subject for the public engagement, as well as commitment and capacity on behalf of the sponsoring body or agency to use the results in a constructive way. A recent example from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council offers an illuminating case study. Here, a public dialogue on the potential applications of nanotechnology to medicine and healthcare was explicitly coupled to a decision about where to target a research funding initiative, providing valuable insights that had a significant impact on the decision.”

Please read the account of this exercise in full on Soft Machines—it is worth the few minutes it takes.  The bottom line is that engaging with citizens, together with input from experts, led to a more informed (and reading between the lines, socially relevant) call for research proposals in this instance.

From this point, Richard goes on to discuss the pros and cons of public engagement on science policy in a broader framework.  Writing in the context of British science, he notes

“The current interest in public engagement takes place at a time when the science policy landscape is undergoing larger changes, both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. We are seeing considerable pressure from governments for publicly funded science to deliver clearer economic and societal benefits. There is a growing emphasis on goal-oriented, intrinsically interdisciplinary science, with an agenda set by a societal and economic context rather than by an academic discipline.”

This sounds remarkably close to the message emerging from the incoming Obama administration, where science and technology in the service of society are strong themes.

Richard also emphasizes that the linear model of science—so beloved by US policy makers following in the footsteps of Vannevar Bush—“is widely recognised to be simplistic at best, neglecting the many feedbacks and hybridisations at every stage of this process.”  Instead, he notes the growing emphasis on “mode II knowledge production” … “goal-oriented, intrinsically interdisciplinary science, with an agenda set by a societal and economic context rather than by an academic discipline.”

However, this new approach to science agenda-setting requires input from the people who will be affected by decisions that are made—citizens, as well as experts.  The challenge is to develop and enact ways of achieving this that are socially responsive and tap into the “wisdom of the crowd”—rather than the “madness of the mob.”

Richard suggests that the UK experiences with nanotechnology have generally been positive, and lay the beginnings of a foundation for fruitful public engagement on science.  He concludes

“Many of the scientists who have been involved with public engagement, however, have reported that the experience is very positive. In addition to being reminded of the generally high standing of scientists and the scientific enterprise in our society, they are prompted to re-examine unspoken assumptions and clarify their aims and objectives. There are strong arguments that public deliberation and interaction can lead to more robust science policy, particularly in areas that are intrinsically interdisciplinary and explicitly coupled to meeting societal goals. What will be interesting to consider as more experience is gained is whether embedding public engagement more closely in the scientific process actually helps to produce better science.”

From my own experiences, I couldn’t agree more.  But so far, there has been little evidence of such innovative approaches being employed to develop the science and technology agenda in the US.  However with a new administration, powerful new networking tools, and a renewed impetus for socially relevant science and technology, there is every hope that public engagement might begin to take the place it deserves in the science and technology decision-making process.

After all, why should the UK have all the best ideas?

Andrew Maynard