22 thoughts on “Engaging the public on science? Surely you’re joking!”

  1. Excellent post Andrew. I have spent considerable hours participating in educational and outreach activities – a specific component implemented in NNIN by NSF and run out of our Nanotechnology Research Center here at Georgia Tech. I always knew in my gut that this was the right thing to do (and I enjoy it immensely), but these reports from the UK put some documentary evidence that it is good for the scientific enterprise.

    1. Thanks David – good to hear. And while I bash the US a little, at least these resources are generally available for anyone anywhere who might want to use them!

  2. None of my favourite scientists needs to be taught lateral thinking, but I’d love to work on teaching some of the linear thinkers how to do it – if, in fact, it can be taught.

    I agree with David – an inspired and exciting post.

  3. Yes, these really are good reports and even more interesting seem to be backed up by a thriving public engagement community in universities keen to learn and engage and government support with Sciencewise and the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement to help out too. Lots to improve of course, a few reports don’t mean it’s all going to happen and money will be an issue, but isn’t it always.

    We see three gaps – which we are hoping to help plug.

    1 The role of business in engagement – they need to engage too. It is at the application end that people can see the issues more clearly and they need to use their very sophisticated methods to engage earlier. We have a project happening on that which is very exciting.

    2 The provision of impartial information, not just science promotion, (which is still important, don’t get me wrong). People need to see the issues in the round in order to make real judgements. We want to explore how people can use the web to see all the issues and get engaged from a position of more rounded understanding. The Nano&me pilot tried to do that. Wouldn’t you love to see an impartial site on Climate Change Science or GM at the moment – I know I would!

    3 The role of ngos. Publics often designate them to represent their views in the debate, are they doing that well and how can they do that best with such limited resources? Also, as the most trusted organs in society, there is only one way to go – down – what are their responsibilities in this area and how can the represent the public more effectively whilst maintaining their own reputation for trustworthyness.

    I have been tinkering with a blog on all this for a couple of days, you of course read all the reports and get yours out in a matter of hours! Lesser mortals take time!

  4. This seems to only account for one side of the responsibility equation. If scientists need to engage the public in the direction of scientific research, then the public needs to hold up their end of the bargain and be at least conversant on the issues of science. This seems to be sorely lacking in the US populace.

    The polls over the last 30 years have fairly consistently shown that between 40 and 45% of the US public believes in creationism. With this understanding, the more US citizens are engaged in forming science policy and agenda we may begin to see science taking the direction of proving the hypothesis that the planet is indeed less than 10,000 years old.

    I think there may a much larger chasm between so-called secular humanist direction of Europe and the fundamentalist creationist movement of the US than I think you are quite aware of at this point. This may account for the US scientist, and indeed the science policy in general, being slightly less than enthusiastic about engaging the public than their colleagues are across the pond.

    1. Of course you are right; for the “social contract on science” to work, both sides need to be active partners in the enterprise. Problem is, where the science community is somewhat coherent (at least from a distance, and if you screw up your eyes), the “public” is anything but – which is why social scientists insist on talking about “publics.”

      This is especially the case in the US, where there is a vast – vast – diversity of cultures, ideas, values and perspectives. In the face of this, an awful lot of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the science community to reach out to this nebulous mass.

      This vast diversity also results in some rather novel perceptions ideas up, and there is a tendency to focus on these, because they seem so out of step with what many consider to be “right-minded thinking” – the creationist movement is one (although it is by no means limited to the US). This movement – or the ideas and attitudes that are associated with – is undoubtedly influential. But it by no means represents Americans, and I suspect that its influence on thinking, attitudes and understanding in the US is overestimated, simply because it makes such an easy target.

      The bottom line here I think is that all citizens have a responsibility to ensure society works, including getting science and technology right, but scientists have a special responsibility as a highly influential community to reach out to others who are affected by their actions.

      1. Hi Andrew,

        I have been reading your blog for a few months now and I must say that I enjoy reading your posts — very insightful and thought-provoking. As a journalist with a special interest in science issues, I agree with the fact that in order for the “social contract on science” to work, both sides (the science community and the general public) need to be active partners in the effort.

        I believe that communication and creativity is the key for this two-way approach to be successful. Just as the science community may perceive the masses to be “nebulous”, a layman may regard scientific theories and research to be too “highbrow” and intimidating. Science can be so much more relevant for the general public if it is communicated in an easy-to-understand and non-technical language. To encourage discussions, public outreach programs and forums should be fun and inspiring. At the same time, I also think that in order for the two-way approach to be effective, scientists should be prepared to hear a diversity of opinions and criticisms from the public – some good, some bad – but hopefully, as a society, we can all then come together and make informed decisions about the future of science. ☺

        Another vehicle to encourage discussions on scientific issues is through theater plays and dramas. I recently attended a science play where two Nobel Prize-winning physicists came together to play the roles of two other Nobel Prize-winning physicists (Michael Frayn’s Tony award-winning science play, Copenhagen). My review: http://www.independent.com/news/2010/mar/12/copenhagen-music-academy-west/ Although the play was set in the 1940’s, it is an example of the many ethical and scientific concerns that a community as a whole needs to address about developing technologies (a modern-day example being nanotechnology).

        1. Thanks Aarti. Really appreciate the link to the piece on reading of Copenhagan – what a great idea!

          I’m afraid I’m a total convert when it comes to using art to explore and engage on science – theater especially :-). What I find fascinating about theater in particular is the way that it enables complex and emotive ideas to be explored once-removed: the actors can express thoughts ad ideas that the audience members – while they resonate with them – could never express directly without conflict and confusion ensuing.

  5. Yes, good point Dexter. Prof Robert Winston in his new book Bad Ideas, which is fab, goes as far as to say ‘If we benefit from scientific progress, we need also to understand that we have a duty to learn more about science so that we can exercise a voice in how it is used and be aware of implications if it is misused.’

    I am seeing him on Monday and very excited to see what he is up to following on from this brill book.

  6. Speaking of engagement with science, it’s quite ironic that that RCUK is suggesting that scientists should engage the public more given that funding to Intute, http://www.intute.ac.uk, a major resource under the UK academic/research umbrella is having its funding cut.

    1. Thanks David – this is a serious disconnect that I didn’t address above: the chasm between intent and funding! The same issue arose recently with the excellent information site on nanotechnology – http://nanoandme.org – where future funding was in doubt. It seems that on the one hand the UK government really gets public engagement, but on the other hand doesn’t get it enough to consider it worth funding well!

  7. ….and then they do fund awful this on-line aspect of the supposedly ground-breaking public engagement project on Geoengineering http://geoengineering.dialoguebydesign.net . Called…Experiment Earth! Give me strength!

    Also interesting is that the Geoengineering scientists I have heard from think it is daft to consult on things that are not at all feasible and will never get funding. They should focus on what might actually happen and not scare people unnecessarily. Much like a public consultation on nanobots perhaps!

  8. Hi Andrew and all! Really interesting comments with special kudos to Dexter for pointing out that citizens have a responsibility too…I look forward to seeing links for Hilary Sutton’s blog-to-be…I have as noted elsewhere (likely hidden somewhere on my blog) mixed feelings about public participation and engagement in funding issues and science policies…in principle, I am for public engagement… I think it’s important and necessary…that said, this ‘wisdom of the crowd’ thing works well in some situations but not in all and it’s my experience that when these new, exciting concepts are taken up that other things are ignored or swept up away…still you and David Bradley note that the spirit of public participation/engagement may be willing but the funding weak…so perhaps, my concern is a little premature…in any event, I’m glad to see this discussion…take care, Maryse

  9. I agree that there’s a degree of consensus amongst some significant actors in the funding bodies, government and the learned societies in the UK about the value of true two-way public engagement with science, and that’s something that’s very much to be welcomed. But I worry that this consensus is more fragile than it might appear. I could certainly find many distinguished UK scientists who would react in exactly the same way as your eminent US scientist to the idea of public input in decisions about research. But the place where there is the most hostility to the idea of public engagement as a tool for allowing the public to have a real input into the direction of science, as opposed to being a vehicle for “getting the public onside”, in my experience, is amongst politicians. They think that the primary mechanism for ensuring a healthy relationship between science and society is through the normal mechanisms of democratic accountability through parliament and ministers, and that the involvement of public engagement undercuts both the traditional autonomy of science and the principles of representative democracy. The rest of us note that this position is both internally incoherent, and relies on a degree of confidence in the robustness of democratic accountability that isn’t entirely shared by the rest of the population, scientists and non-scientists alike.

    1. Thanks Richard – extremely insightful. The US is following similar challenges to working out how citizen engagement fits into the established democratic process, but my experience is that science is still relatively low on the radar here compared to the UK. There are major challenges and concerns here, as well as a tendency to preserve the status quo. Hopefully though, these can be overcome, and we can move toward more effective approaches to engagement from all sides.

  10. A very useful post, thank you Andrew, and good discussion by contributors here.

    I’m concerned about two crucial audiences for the message about engagement:

    (1) Senior academics who sit on appointment and promotion panels at Russell Group institutions. In my experience (on search committees, and in appraisal boards), there are still plenty of dinosaurs out there who regard engagement activites as detrimental to someone’s research focus, or view those active in engagement as “second class” researchers. Of course, the new RCUK guide nicely refutes those views with examples – but will they ever read it? Because they are the gatekeepers of appointments and promotions, their attitudes continue to determine the landscape of activities at their institutions.

    (2) Similarly, those setting the criteria and metrics for the REF need to recognise the importance of engagement. Otherwise, as happened under the various iterations of the RAE, the excellent engagement that does take place will only continue *despite* the system, not because of it (and be restricted only in “pockets” at institutions where senior management are enlightened and supportive of it).

    The RCUK docs are very welcome indeed – but how can we get the “dinosaurs” to read and consider them, and also reach those defining the REF? (Indeed, who exactly are the individuals designing the REF?).

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