I have a post over on Research Blogs about the Science and Citizen conference last week. The event was a bit of a birthday party for the House of Lords’ 2000 Science and Society report. It might seem ridiculous to run an international conference to toast a decade-old select committee report. It is. It’s also a sign of how influential the report has become.
The report is credited with formalising a model for science in society which stresses the benefits of an interactive two-way relationship between science and the public. In doing so, they also kicked off a whole movement for Public Engagement with Science (PEST). This is often contrasted with “the deficit model”: assuming the public are deficit in scientific knowledge, to be should be spoken (down) to rather than having a useful conversation with. This “deficit model” is often associated with the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s and pretty much the bogey-man of UK science communication (and, arguably, just as mythical).
Way too much time is spent worrying about being seen to do PEST and not PUS, when in reality the public communication of science is much more diverse than that. Plus, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking all that much changed in 2000. A lot of “PEST” work is actually quite “PUS”-y (or something else entirely).
Moreover, great as many of the ideas of PEST embodied in the Lords report are, we should be open to the possibility that there are problems with them too. As I argue in the Research Blogs post, by calling witnesses like Brian Wynne, the Lords Report brought a sociological critique of late 20th century science communication into policy discourse. We couldn’t say the same for a similar critique of 21st century science communication. Criticising PEST needn’t be a defense of PUS (or simply a reactionary inability to cope with the challenge of PEST). It’s a critique of current work with an eye on making it better. The engagement community is at least ten years old. It’s time it got less defensive and got a bit more self-critical.
I’ve tried asking critical questions before, I tend not to get much of a reply.
With an eye on future models for science communication, I have a piece in Research Fortnight last week on science and “the big society” (paywalled, though most UK universities have a subscription) – see also some earlier discussion on this blogpost and comment thread. I’m quite sceptical about a lot of the big society chatter. But there is scope, perhaps, for some new thinking about science communication to grow out of it. Or, perhaps just a chance for some quite old thought on opening up the governance of science to be used for more than just their rhetoric.
Of course, “the big society” could just be another bit of political terminology on which people pin a multitude of agendas whilst pretending they agree with each other. Or it could turn out to inspire a load of people to run street parties under the auspices of doing something meaningful for democratic involvement. Not that “engagement” was either of those two things at all. <whistles>
EDIT: Simon Denegri agrees.