What’s this public ‘engagement’ with science thing then?

This is a linked-up blog-version of a talk I gave for Imperial’s grad school. It’s all basic stuff, but I hope it’s useful.

A few months ago, a colleague asked for my ‘top ten tips for public engagement’. My first response was a bit curt, I only had three:

  • There is no such thing as ‘the public’.
  • What on earth is ‘engagement’ supposed to mean?
  • I’m not entirely convinced by this ‘science’ word either.

I was taking the mickey, but there is a serious point here. If I really have to reduce all the things I have learnt about the public communication of science, then I’d argue it’s the specifics that matter.  ‘The public’, ‘engagement’, ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ are just simplifications we’ve made up to make the big wide complicated world easier to understand. These terms are still real and meaningful, but at the very least, they’re open to a bit of playful reinterpretation.

Considering the ‘public’ and ‘scientists’.

There are various studies of public opinion with respect to science – this paper and this report are both worth reading if you are interested (some more links here). Most people, especially British people, on the whole seem to quite like and trust scientists. Still, the people that are less enamored by science still matter, and it’s wrong to lump them together, or assume they all have the same reasons for feeling whatever disconnect with science they do. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that much uniformity within the group that say they do like science.

Most critical work in science communication emphasises the multiplicity of ‘the public’, as the National Coordinating Center for Public Engagement (NCCPE) puts it, ‘everyone is a member of the public’, and yet everyone is different; ‘Thinking of the public as an undifferentiated whole is unlikely to help develop any kind of purposeful, responsive and respectful engagement’.

As the NCCPE goes on, one commonly used tactic is to talk about publics rather than the singular public. Another is to take my first ‘top tip’ and say there is no such thing as the public. Much as I think it’s a statement worth making, I don’t think you should take it too seriously.

  • Firstly, the term public is used, and is made real by this use. If you are interested in this, there’s a nice paper by Mike Micheals where he talks about Publics in Particular and Publics in General (or ‘PiPs’ and ‘PiGs’) and the different ways in which different ideas of ‘the public’ or ‘a public’ get used with respect to science.
  • Secondly, this sense of ‘the general public’ can be useful. People in science communication are often told to target their audiences. Work out who you want to talk to and learn about them so you know how to talk to them. This is important. But it can also be very limiting. Knowing your audience is great, but who says you want to be limited to who you know? If you aim for an imaginary ‘general public’ you force yourself not to assume much knowledge or particular interest, and therefore open it up to more people. It acts as a sort of heuristic.

Writing for a broad and vague sense of ‘the general public’ can make everything a bit bland though. It’d be boring if all science communication was like this. Within the big field of science communication, there can be both narrow and broad aimed work. You can try to know your target audiences as best as possible whilst also being open to new ones you had no idea existed/ cared. It depends on your project.

I’m similarly sceptical about lumping this whole ‘science’ thing together (and in particular, lumping together ‘scientists). Science is big and complex, its ideas about itself vary and change over time. Maybe it should be pluralised to sciences, like publics. Or again, maybe we could just talk about specific people, ideas and approaches. Leave loose talk about ‘science’ to philosophers and advertising executives, and instead focus on sharing what you have particular expertise in, be honest about what you don’t know and think about all the new things you might learn from engaging in a bit of broader discussion about your work.

All of this is why some of the most powerful engagement work happens face to face – rather than writing something and delivering it to an audience – as scientists and ‘publics’ (whoever any of these people actually are) can gradually learn what it is about each other; discover what they do and do not have in common, and discursively find ways to connect.

What’s this ‘engagement’ thing about then?

A recent UK government report (pdf, p20) described public engagement with science and technology as ‘an umbrella term’, encompassing a range of activities from science festivals, to the news media, public debates or policy consultations. If one was being unkind, one could say ‘umbrella term’ is a polite way of saying so many people are using the word, it’s started to loose any coherent meaning. However, the report goes on to stress that ‘any good engagement activity should involve aspects of listening and interaction’, and this is key.

With the stress on listening and interaction, they are deliberately distancing themselves from more top-down approaches, which are seen as a bit old fashioned. As I’ve written before, there is a story many people in science communication tell about their professional past, is as used to believe in the deficit model but have now seen the light and are gradually moving towards greater and greater degrees of dialogic enlightenment.

In reality, nothing’s that linear, but the short version of this long and complex story is that in 1985 Walter Bodmer wrote a report for the Royal Society calling for a greater Public Understanding of Science (PUS). Although the role of this has been argued over since (e.g.), it seemed to formalise a feeling that the public needed to be onside with science, and that this was largely the public’s fault (they were ignorant, too easily led by the media… it was anything other than science’s fault).

Critics of a PUS approach, such as sociologist Brian Wynne (famous for his study of sheep farmers), dubbed their attitude to the public ‘the deficit model’, arguing it unrealistically black-boxed science and the public and naively imagined knowledge should (and could) simply flow from the former to the latter. There’s a basic media studies critique to be made: people don’t simply believe what you tell them, especially if you set up a patronising structure which defines them as stupid.  There are also epistemological problems; by many definitions, it is ‘unscientific’ to assume science has all the answers ready to pass on to the rest of the world. A new view emerged, stressing a more contextual approach to the public’s reactions, use and knowledge of science. Post ‘BSE crisis‘, a series of publications stressed the need for greater openness and transparency, with a special focus on the need to be careful when it comes to communicating risk. The 2000 House of Lords report on Science and Society is the most important of these, known for formalising in a ‘new mood for dialogue’ which took on the sociological critiques of the deficit model.

Where now?

The legacy of the 80s and 90s leaves us with two key models for thinking about the public communication of science (although in terms of actually doing such work, things are always more complex):

  • The Deficit Model. This assumes the public are deficit in scientific knowledge and need to be better informed. It is patronizing and unrealistic about the public, the media and science. This is generally hated by the professional science communication community. So much so, people mention it at conferences and you can head people going “booo”, as if they were at a pantomime.
  • Dialogue. Rooted in sociological ideas as well as a lot of work by geographers. It acknowledges the scientific worth (as well as democratic and rhetorical necessity) of listening to non-scientists, as well as the contingency and continental changing nature of science. It is discursive rather than conclusive, and arguably has limited political impact.

… and there’s not been much new in thinking since then. I wish there was (if only because I’m personally a bit bored with people banging on about the deficit model). There is the notion of ‘upstream’ engagement, but that’s got its problems too as a model, and is a it old too.

Perhaps we don’t need new ideas though; we just need to put them into practise. I’d also say that I think there have been shifts in practise, and in many respects the most exciting innovations come at a very local level. It’s the specifics that matter. Often, it’s the specifics that are the most interesting too.


In an attempt end on a positive point, I’ll finish by forcing myself to take that ‘top tips’ idea seriously, and I’ll even stretch as far as five.

  • Don’t be silly about ‘the public’. Remember: knowing your audience and targeting specific groups can be very powerful, but so can the serendipitous connections made by packaging your work as accessibly as audience as possible.
  • Communication is something you take part in, it’s not something you deliver. If you spend as much time listening as you do talking not only are you more likely to find yourself listened to, but you might well learn something inspiring.
  • Don’t be try to be an advocate for the whole of science, but don’t let yourself be limited by its boundaries either. You don’t have to brand something ‘science’, think instead about the object of your study, or perhaps a specific method or approach. What is it exactly you want to share precisely?
  • There is a long history to debates over science and society. This means there are small pots of ideas, people and money which are worth being aware of and tapping into. Don’t be limited by this history, and be prepared to see public communication work as part as (and funded as part as…) your research.
  • There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but be realistic. This means keeping in mind the limitations of your project, including pragmatic concerns like money, time, your professional image and the weather. You are unlikely to change the world. You may not even change any minds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, you may well have helped move towards a bit of world/ mind changing. These things take time. None of them are easy.

If you have any more top tips, or want to disagree with any of mine, please do add them in the comments.

I’ve also put together a list of links to further resources. EDIT added here before posterous closese:

A few useful resources for scientists interested in Public Engagement with Science (very UK focused):


29 thoughts on “What’s this public ‘engagement’ with science thing then?

  1. supermassivescience

    A very nice piece. It’s a shame that when some areas of science do attempt to “engage” a wider community, often the hardest part is to break down the image of science created by the media. However, it’s nice to see the public opinion studies you reference. I’m a current Mathematics doctoral student in the UK and it’s difficult to convey the importance of mathematics when the only news stories many people hear in the mainstream media are trivial pieces.

    1. alice Post author

      Maybe, though if you actually do a systematic study of the media’s treatment of science, it’s not always as bad as people at first assume… (c.f. studies of the public’s attitudes).

  2. tribalscientist

    Brilliant essay. Loved it. I said a lot of similar stuff in my book about the illusion of science and public as distinct entities. And, likewise, am constantly frustrated by vague buzz words like ‘engagement’ which often lacks a clear connection with a behaviour.

    I have a simple question I tend to ask people when they use such terms – I ask them ‘what does it look like?’. If they can daydream a scenario, and describe in some detail, we might have a discussion. I’m often amazed by how many people are stumped by the question though.

  3. David

    Very interesting piece – and a nice summary. But I was left wondering about the ‘why?’. What is science communication for? What is the purpose? Obviously, like publics and sciences, there are many different purposes and needs for science communication. Shouldn’t that also inform the mechanism of the communication process

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, I think there are range of whys, and that would make an impact on what you do, just as your ideas of public and science might too. To some extent that is tied up in the issues of what is engagement (or at least if you dig into the history of that debate, you’ll find a fair few whys).

      Why’s are covered in the NCCPE site or it’s worth reading Gregory & Millar’s run through Thomas & Duran’t reasons for the public understanding of science in their book, Science in Public (partly as it’s make you quite seriously question whether it’s worth doing at all always). If I have time, I’ll do a follow up post with an overview of these. It’s in my intro undergrad and MSc courses.

  4. John Hawks

    Nicely written. I do wonder about the “where now?” section — are there really no new ideas?

    I think the “deficit” model is the working hypothesis of the majority of scientists I know; they tend to assume that people are like their students. Since many of them hold little regard for their students, this often works out poorly!

  5. Chris KP

    Well written. As someone who works in both school education and adult science engagement (theatre and cabaret) I completely agree with your conclusions about recognising the audience, without limiting your options. Designing an engagement opportunity for a particular audience is a fine strategy, but I’ve seen many such efforts horribly underestimate the diversity (and sometimes the intelligence) of said audience. I have also had many happy experiences when the genuinely 2-way nature of the interaction meant that I could learn from the “audience”.

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  7. Daniella Zajac

    Well written. As someone who works in both school education and adult science engagement (theatre and cabaret) I completely agree with your conclusions about recognising the audience, without limiting your options. Designing an engagement opportunity for a particular audience is a fine strategy, but I’ve seen many such efforts horribly underestimate the diversity (and sometimes the intelligence) of said audience. I have also had many happy experiences when the genuinely 2-way nature of the interaction meant that I could learn from the “audience”.

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  10. Rich and Co.

    We would propose a simplistic notion of three main targets for science journalism:
    – Professional Scientists – People paid to do primary research in a specific discipline.
    – Public – Professional non scientists, or cross discipline, policy makers, informed public. These are people who will use science findings in their professional lives. (B2B)
    – Popular Science – mass audience and everyone other than the two preceding (B2C)

    We are marketers. Our interest in the Public audience or “Teaching the teachers.” Our motives are pretty much self-serving. We seek a competitive advantage in using science and just enjoy primary research and the puzzle of translating it. Not to consumers for pop science but to other professionals, decision and policy makers.

    We harbor no interest in changing anything or having any influence. We just like to be better informed than our competitors, only want to do evidence-based work and find the work enjoyable. That’s all.

    We’re doing more work and study on this. For a great discussion let us refer you to the blog post — “Jonah Lehrer is Not a Neuroscientist.”

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