Science, citizens and everything else

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.

6 thoughts on “Science, citizens and everything else

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Science, citizens and everything else « through the looking glass --

  2. Michelle

    I’m unclear as to the actual difference between PUS and Engagement – it appears to my (non-professional) eye that the two cannot be completely divided, and as such I’m quite pleased to see you say in the above post “A lot of “PEST” work is actually quite “PUS”-y”.

    What would be considered the definition of the two terms?

    1. alice Post author

      It’s probably best thinking about movements rather than words – the words have been used and abused so much they’ve lost most of their meaning.

      The Public Understanding of Science movement is often associated with the deficit model. This assumes that the public are in need a bit of filling up with science; that they are lacking scientific expertise and unable to speak about science (or even really rationally contribute to society) unless they are first fed lots of scientific information. This is sometimes connected to calls for greater scientific literacy, and one of the reasons why I had a bit of a rant against scientific literacy earlier in the year. Under such a model, the trick of science communication becomes a matter of communicating science as efficiently and charmingly as possible.

      There are loads of problems with this. Firstly, it’s a bit patronising. People aren’t likely to listen to you if you tell them they are ignorant and stupid, even if you smile sweetly while you do so. If your main agenda is simply telling people stuff, you’ll probably find having a chat and at the very least pretending to listen to them will help. Getting some feel for the context your audience sits within is useful (before PEST buzzword came along, people would talk about “the contextual approach” as an alternative to PUS).

      This connects to another problem – science can often be helped by listening to the public. This varies depending on the science a bit, but the public can sometimes have useful perspecitves or, at least, the process of talking about research to non-experts can give a researchers a new view on their field. The public can be a resource as much as an audience.

      Additionally, people argue that publicly funded science should listen to the public, especially on ethical issues. That doesn’t mean you just walk up to people in the street and say “what do you think about synbio?” as most people won’t know what this even is. Science can have a chance to put it’s point of view forward first, and work to build trust between science and society. As Lord Jenkin said at the Wellcome event the other week,you might think of this as a need for ‘understanding’ before ‘engagement’. I personally wouldn’t put it in those terms, because I think engagement includes understanding, but I take his point.

      Even at it’s most radical, PEST (or perhaps post-PUS science communication) has never denied that science has understanding that can or even should be shared. Neither has it necessarily denyed that some members of the public don’t know stuff that would be useful to them. It just stresses that science doesn’t know everything either (indeed, that it’s only “scientific” to remember that) and that coming from the standpoint of “OMG they are all so STUPID” isn’t going to get a message very far.

      So, in it’s broadest sense, the shift from PUS to PEST was to take the public seriously and talk about science with them (rather than talking at them).

      This post might also be helpful (skip to after the link to the video – though the video’s worth watching too).

  3. sashi chadha

    Would muliple of agendas whilst pretending they ( the big society ) agree with each other also include the just concluded Cancun Talks ?

  4. hpaa46

    In my course in science and public decision-making, we consider not only how scientific evidence is understood, used, (and abused) by council members and legislators, but also what they can learn from science about the cognitive processes which they use in reaching decisions. How do we apply to elected officials what we espouse about citizens’s relationship to science?


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