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December 20, 2010

Understanding Engagement

Earlier this week a conference on Science and Citizenship took place in London, organized by the Wellcome Trust, the British Council, SciDev.Net, the Commonwealth Association and the British Science Association.

Research Fortnight's editorial suggested the conference would assess the legacy of the 1985 Bodmer report into the Public Understanding of Science (pdf). The British Council's homepage for the event promised debate over whether we had achieved a democratic model of science communication? In the end, the event seemed more like a tenth birthday party for the 2000 Lords Science and Society report.

In fact, I left the conference thinking there was very little discussion of citizenship at all. Maybe I choose the wrong workshop sessions, but people seemed most keen to talk about Geek Pop, Fame Lab and SciCast: fun with science for those who generally already find it fun, rather than anything more overtly political (not that having fun with science isn't political, or that such projects cannot be seen as a step in increased democratic engagement with science). It seemed to be largely about popular science, with some of the language of democratic involvement stuck on for decoration.

It might seem quite ridiculous to run an international event to toast a decade-old report from the House of Lords. In many ways it was. But it is also an example of how influential this report is, and the affection with which it is held by many in the science communication industry, both in the UK and, rather incredibly, across the world. The report is surprisingly readable. If you are interested in science in society and haven't read the report, do at least glance at it online.

It is widely credited with formalising a so-called 'new mood for dialogue between science and the rest of society. As Lord Jenkin told the conference, by 2000 there was a strong feeling that the age of deference to science has passed; if science wanted to flourish in 21st century Britain it would need to earn public trust. There was an increased sense that science needed to understand the public as much as the other way around, and indeed, that science could benefit from this. A model of two-way 'engagement' would be much more productive than simply pointing out one group's lack of understanding of any particular issue.

Still, as John Durant cautioned in his keynote, we should be careful of over-emphasising the impact of this one report. Public Engagement didn't start in 2000. Public Understanding didn't end then either. Or maybe the language did, a bit. Many in science communication and policy spurn 'Public Understanding of Science' and its associated terms almost as if they were toxic, but we should be sceptical about how radical the shift has been further than simple rhetoric. In reality, work in the public communication of science remains quite diverse, and we would do well to be more frank about the pluralistic state of the field (this is something we should celebrate, as well as being critical of).

The various initiatives, ideas and self-critical awareness which followed Bodmer's report fifteen years before laid much of the groundwork for the content of the Lords report. Interestingly, I thought, Jenkin spoke of the way he had invited Brian Wynn to be a witness, having previously been impressed by his understanding of issues surrounding the nuclear industry. Thus, through Wynne's involvement, a sociological critique of late 20th century science communication made its way into formal policy discourse.

This point about critique is key. I don't see a similar critique of 21st century science communication formalised today. I see it in some of the sociological literature. I try to invoke it amongst my students. I hear it in the pub. But I rarely see it formally in professional contexts, and it hardly showed itself at the conference this week (Wynne himself sent his apologises due to illness). There wasn't even any real mention of what is now a rather old critique of the Lords report's emphasis on trust and risk, Demos' 2004 'See Through Science' report, let alone any critique or development of this work, or further, newer ideas.

Another of the keynote speakers, Elizabeth Pisani did, to her credit, try. Yes, engagement can be hugely beneficial, but can and should science always give up control to the public? Considering the international context of the conference, are the sorts of initiatives and ideas stemming out of the UK always useful, are they what everyone, everywhere, actually wants? I should emphasise Pisani's points weren't reactionary complaints about engagement, she said this will awareness of its benefits too; it was a call to think deeply about the approach.

If noticing that it's been ten years since the Lords Science and Society report was published should prompt us to anything, it's that the public engagement industry should think of itself as a mature field. As such, it's by far time it got a bit more self-critical. It is time to move on from simple cheerleading.


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