Should science engage?

Gregory and Miller start their 1998 introduction to Science Communication, Science in Public, with the “new commandment from on high: Thou shalt communicate”. Twelve years on, we might re-articulate this as “Thou shalt engage” but Gregory and Miller’s tongue in cheek questioning of an enterprise we generally assume is A Good Thing is worth retaining. This is not to say public engagement with science and technology (PEST) is a bad thing, just that it’s a big topic and worth thinking about what we mean before we blithely go about doing it. I also wonder if recent events, such as climate-gate or the economic downturn, have changed our attitudes to science communication policy in the UK.

I was prompted to ask this at the Science Communication Conference last week. Specifically, I was struck by the difference between Jacquie Burgess’ talk, and a similar one she gave at the first of these conferences, back in 2002. I wrote a report on the event for CoPUS, and still remember her presentation in 2002 quite vividly (pdf here).

In 2002, Burgess was a Professor in the Geography Department at UCL, a world expert on the environment and society, she spoke calmly, authoritatively and with a refreshing amount of cynicism. She complained that the results of so many public consultations end up left sitting on a desk somewhere, that she (and moreover, the public stakeholders) were fed up with being involved in processes which go nowhere. Engagement sometimes feels like a lot of talk with little outcomes. She also said this:

“in the rather touchy-feely overcrowded field of public participation there are few processes that genuinely seek arguments”.

I remember feeling inspired by that statement, and it is one that has stayed with me. I am not sure it works in all contexts, sometimes a bit of agreement is better than an argumentative stance. Still, there is a place for a bit of a friendly squabble too.

At the 2010 event, Burgess is still a world authority on the environment and society, now Professor of Environmental Risk at the UEA. But she looked scared, quiet and nervous. Haunted almost. It could just have been the bad lighting at in the lecture theatre, but her whole message was different. She complained about the emotive state of public debate over climate change, especially in the blogosphere, which she likened to play-ground bullying (the mainstream press were criticised too though). Most surprisingly for me, she suggested that climate science, or at least parts of it, should lay low for a bit. They shouldn’t engage with the deniers (or “agnostics”, or anyone), but hide out for a while, keep out of sight until everything had calmed down. Even when the time had come for engagement, she suggested it might be best to avoid the internet, and instead spend time re-engaging with nature (she mentioned the Eden Project, Tim Smit had just addressed the conference). No actively seeking arguments now, it was positively “touchy-feely”.

A fair few people rolled their eyes at some of Burgess’ points, but I doubt they came from anything other than thoughtful reflection. I wouldn’t I agree with a distinction between internet and engagement with the natural environment. I’m drafting this on my laptop sitting in Gordon Square; if Wellcome’s wifi signal stretched this far, I’d use the web to check what type of flower is growing next to me. (NB: I very much doubt Professor Burgess applies naive nature/ culture/ technology divisions). Still, the UEA and it’s “climategate” is, perhaps, a special case. Maybe laying low for a bit is wise. Or, maybe because it’s such a special case there is even more reason to find a way to engage with various publics (argumentatively or otherwise). I don’t know. It is worth thinking about though.

To add a couple of other lines of caution over the worth of engagement, a lot of PEST work could be critiqued in the same way we criticise more old fashioned “top-down” science communication, that it acts to keep the public in their place. It may explicitly exist to connect people, but its very existence only acts to emphasise their differences. This in itself isn’t necessarily a worry, scientists and non-scientists are, afterall, different cultural groups. A more pressing concern perhaps, especially when the results of dialogue projects just end up on desks, that they act simply as a form of rhetorical hand-wave toward public participation. I was interested to read in the news this week that Brian Wynne had resigned from the steering committee of a government-commissioned public dialogue on GM Food, complaining it was little more than propaganda for the food industry. Perhaps the PEST project is just a way of making the public feel like they’ve done something so they don’t bother politicians by seeking out real social change. I should note that a colleague of mine, Sarah Davies, has written persuasively about what she calls “non-policy dialogue” in sites like the Dana Center. Again, I don’t know but I think the more cynical questions are at least worth asking.

There is also the very simple question of whether scientists are better off working on the science. Either leave science communication to the professionals, or perhaps simply don’t bother, if the public don’t want to talk or listen to scientists, why poke at them to “engage”? Perhaps we could all use our energies more efficiently. Recently, in a blogpost reacting to Martin Rees’ first Reith Lecture, Micheal Brooks suggested that the Royal Society should shift their emphasis from public communication and towards politics: forget fellowship placements for scientists to spend time working in media outlets, embed them in Whitehall instead. Young scientists should gain experience of politics and think about developing careers and influence there. I’m not sure I agree with the either/ or distinction here (in fact I disagree quite strongly) but it is an interesting point, and it is worth noting that the Economics and Social Research Council is very active in this area.

I have no answer to the question of whether engagement is a good idea or not. I suspect there are many different answers for many different contexts. I’d be interested to know what other people think. Have experiences of climategate or years of not-much-actual-action on PEST projects caused UK science communication to start to turn its back on the enterprise? If not, then at least are there times and places where/when science shouldn’t engage, and what are they?

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6 thoughts on “Should science engage?

  1. Roland Jackson

    I can't resist a quick comment. Just to say, as we did in the Science for All report and action plan, that there are many different motivations and purposes for 'engagement'; by publics, scientists, scientific and other organisations, and government. There are indeed 'many different answers for many different contexts'. But overall I would say that engagement is almost invariably better than the opposite (substitute the word 'communication' to make that more obvious), and that clarity and honesty about motivation and purpose are vital.I hope that people are not generalising from the very specific (e.g. UEA, FSA mentioned above) to the general. Surely we need a scientific community that is sensitive to, and understands its place in, society, and regards it as an intrinsic part of being a scientist to be societally engaged? Hiding in the lab is not an option now. Different scientists will engage in different ways, for different purposes, at different times and to different extents. But the more widespread this understanding is of e.g. media, policy and public discourse, the less likely we are experience the dislocations Alice describes.

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  2. Tim Reynolds

    Excellent post Alice. But I do hope that 'hiding' in the lab is not what climate scientists now do. You are conveying a similar feeling to that which I got from Bob Ward's comment piece in the New Scientist recently. If climate science is running away from engagement – in exactly the same way that both academics and industry did with the GM debate (although I would say then they weren't as dynamic as running away – they just failed to turn up until it was too late) then we are literally off to "hell in a handcart" climate wise. There is no use hiding in the lab until "it" calms down – because "it" won't calm down. Ever.

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  3. Steve Wallbridge

    Maybe not an expert, but as a scientist (and, let me say at the start, a dyed in the wool cynic) who followed a science communication MSc my conviction on commencement was that little is achieved by it, as such, and nothing I learned has changed my mind (yet). There is plenty of evidence that even educated people (i.e. enough to follow the arguments) will cling to contrary (socially-informed) beliefs, even some evidence that they form such beliefs, in the face of what they know to be effectively proof (scientific) that they are wrong. The majority will cherry pick and misunderstand science information anyway (I include myself and anyone non-expert in any field). I have since formed the opinion that the more scientists communicate, the more we appear to be trying to hide something because spin-savvy modern citizens are growing increasingly used to the noisier sections of society (politics, industry, even celebrity) lying or dissembling through the biased media to twist reality, whatever that might mean today. The more science joins in and tangles itself in that web, the less credible it appears. Add the propensity for communication to focus on controversy and polarising debates (e.g. climate change… which went OK for while, before a faint whiff of scandal, a bit of overexposure, some cold weather and the argument is slipping away again) and I'd suggest it is all slightly counterproductive. My cynicism-free side finds the agenda-free role of just explaining things to people on a personal (or plain old documentary) level to be the main joy in it. Perhaps it doesn't achieve much, except maybe an interesting fact for a quiz and a good conversation, but maybe we'd be better to accept as much. Making 'Science Communication' an industry, a social imperative or a ministry for propoganda, is where I think there is definitely a problem for both sides.

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  4. Dee Rawsthorne

    Science must engage at all times, not just in a crisis, it must build up trust and mutual respect so that they can have a dialogue with all parties at any time. Science must also play by the rules and not sink to the depths of those who dispute the evidence. Science simply doiesn't have the funds to throw at campaigns and those who are Government funded would be wrong to do so. It is a hard balancing act for many scientists who are good at engagement as they aslo have a day job. So we need communication experts and scientists to work together, learn who their publics are and act appropriately, one size does not fit all. The media as we are seeing once again with GM needs to play fair and print facts as well as opinion, and make it clear which is which. Many GM scientists on the back of the animal rights movement were simply too scared to speak out for fear of attack from the greens. The ones who did were treated so badly you could hardly blame them for crawling back into their shells. So many issues here and there is no simple answer apart from long term build up of trust and this can be done at grass roots, local community level right up national policy and Government.

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  5. Pingback: Science, citizens and everything else « through the looking glass

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