The conceptual and practical challenge to scientists and to science-involved institutions, including government, is to establish mutually respectful relationships, learning and influence, and to share control over purposes and directions.The British Science Association's Sir Roland Jackson explains why public engagement in science and technology can be hugely beneficial...
Sir Roland Jackson
All science, technology and research is directly or indirectly funded by the public. Technological developments and the implications of scientific discoveries affect all aspects of our society and economy, and raise significant questions of values, beliefs and ethics. It is evident from attitude surveys that the public have an expectation of being engaged in science, and it is the duty of science-involved individuals and organisations to engage them.
However, the need for engagement is poorly understood in the private sector as compared with the public and charitable sectors. Public engagement serves a myriad of different purposes and individual or institutional agendas, all of which need to be explicit and thought through.
True civil liberties, and a thriving democracy, require all aspects of science and its implications to be opened up for public discussion and involvement. Likewise, citizens who wish to act as scientists by, for example, helping monitor environmental changes at local and national levels or initiating their own research (as in the DIYBio movement), should be welcomed and supported by professional scientists.
While one could reasonably argue that scientific findings are value neutral (except to the extent that someone has decided to concentrate on this particular area of knowledge-generation rather than another), the choice and use of technologies and the overall directions of research are certainly not. The conceptual and practical challenge to scientists and to science-involved institutions, including government, is to establish mutually respectful relationships, learning and influence, and to share control over purposes and directions.
In the UK, we have recently been examining how we approach what is now termed public engagement with the sciences. We have tried to move beyond a vision of science education and communication that seems to be primarily concerned with doing things to the public – important though those may be at times – to think more about listening to and working with wider society.Exploring the landscape
Following a national consultation on science and society instigated by the previous UK government, five expert groups were set up to develop collective action plans across linked areas: Science and Trust, Science and the Media, Science and Learning, Science and Careers, and Science for All. It became immediately obvious to the Science for All Group, which was concerned with public engagement broadly, that there are many different purposes and motivations, individual and institutional, for public engagement. Many of these were set out in the Science for All report and action plan, published in 2010, and it is important to be explicit and open about them.
We have tried to move beyond a vision of science education and communication that seems to be primarily concerned with doing things to the public – important though those may be at times – to think more about listening to and working with wider society.
Ultimately, they come down to creating an environment in which science can flourish for social and economic benefit, because it has the trust, support and involvement of wider society. This requires a culture in which the scientific community, and those governing and regulating science, regard engagement with society as an integral part of their roles. They must engender a continuous sensitivity to public values, interests and views and always be prepared to explain, discuss and listen. Essentially, it is about ensuring licence to operate, viewed from a scientist's and government perspective. Get the relationship with civil society wrong, and significant economic and social benefits may be compromised.Three overarching purposes
Specific public engagement activities tend to break down into three types that can be characterised, from the point of view of the scientific community, government or the public, as 'transmitting', 'receiving' and 'collaborating'.
Transmitting includes activities designed to inspire, raise awareness, educate, shift perceptions or change behaviour, through outreach activities or campaigns, for example. Receiving relates to public dialogue and consultation, market research and information gathering, while collaborating involves partnerships, collaborative research, consensus-building and co-governance – by having lay members on research-funding panels, for instance.
These are not 'either/or' categories, since individual activities in public engagement will often have elements of two or all of them, but using this model does force one to think beyond the traditional education and communication approaches, and to consider the wider purposes and nature of engaging civil society with the sciences and technology. In that sense, it is best viewed as a two-dimensional space, allowing the mix or dominance of the three purposes to be mapped (Fig. 1).
Three examples illustrate how this idea works:
• First, at point X, imagine a science busking activity in the street, or press-releasing your latest finding. This is primarily about inspiring or informing others, so it is essentially 'transmit';
• Second, at point Y, imagine researching public attitudes to a technology, or seeking feedback on an outreach programme. This is concerned primarily with gathering information so is at the corner of 'receive';
• Third, at point Z, imagine shaping the form of a call for proposals using public dialogue, or lay membership of a governing body. Here the public involvement is integral to the work, and is clearly identified with 'collaborate'.Concordats and manifestos
There are signs that public engagement is being taken more seriously.
Led by Research Councils UK, and with wide support from public and charitable funders of research, the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research has been signed and widely supported. It has four principles that recognise the importance of public engagement to help maximise the social and economic impact of UK research.
In parallel, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement has developed a manifesto for the higher education sector. This is a similar statement of commitment, aimed primarily at universities and research institutes, which complements the concordat and has been signed by a wide range of higher education institutions.
Concordats and manifestos do not of themselves change cultures, but they are working with the grain as scientists and science-involved institutions see the varied benefits of different forms and purposes of public engagement.The Sciencewise programme
Set up by government in 2007, and due to be continued for a further three years at least, the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre is the UK's national hub for public dialogue in policymaking involving science and technology issues. It encourages, advises, supports and part-funds public dialogue projects of policy relevance in the public sector. Its continuation is testament to the value of its activity, helping at its best to enable organisations to reframe policy issues beyond risks and benefits of particular technologies, to better consider social outcomes and the role of technologies in achieving these goals.
The conceptual and practical challenge to scientists and to science-involved institutions, including government, is to establish mutually respectful relationships, learning and influence, and to share control over purposes and directions.Looking forward
There is an increasing realisation that public engagement operates at two levels: that of individual scientists, explaining, talking about and reflecting on their work with public groups, and that of institutions and major programmes, in relation to their priorities, direction and governance. The public and charitable sectors increasingly well understand both, but the private sector sees things differently and uses a different language. Bridging this gap of both thinking and practice between the sectors is the challenge of the moment.This article first appeared on publicservice.co.uk: Engaging and excelling.