What is Public Engagement with Science? “Simply trying to educate the public about specific science-based issues is not working. We need to move beyond what too often has been seen as a paternalistic stance. We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology.” – AAAS Chief Execture Officer Alan Leshner, Science 2003
It has long been noted that scientists should ‘engage more fully with the public about scientific issues and the concerns that society has about them.’ (Outreach Training Needed, Leshner, Science 2003). But what should this engagement look like?
According to Borchelt & Hudson, 2008, public engagement in science ‘focuses on regular dialogue (two-way, symmetrical communications), transparency of the decision and policy-making process, and meaningful incorporation of public input into that process.’
Public Agenda (2008) defines public engagement as ‘a highly inclusive problem-solving approach through which regular citizens deliberate and collaborate on complex public problems’ that ‘allows people to join the public dialogue surrounding a problem and provides them the tools to do so productively.’
This definition came about in the context of a more citizen-centered approach to politics (Public Agenda, 2008), and is indicative of a dialogue-based approach to public engagement, where dialogue involves two-way, symmetrical communication (Borchelt & Hudson, 2008). The following definition further distinguishes dialogue-based engagement: A means by which dialogue is achieved, where dialogue involves discussion … on topics of mutual interest, the results of which discussion contribute to the shaping of policy (Gregory, Agar, Lock, & Harris, 2007). This definition gets at the conceptual understanding of public engagement as a strategic endeavor to improve decision-making from a democratic perspective (Rowe, Horlick-Jones, Walls, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2008), through involvement of an informed and engaged public (Wooden, 2006). For science, an informed and engaged public can perhaps only be achieved through the long-term and committed efforts of scientists and science journalists in translating complex scientific issues into transparent information and problem-solving approach choices, even if this means admitting to scientific uncertainty in areas of science that are still under development and the subjects of active research.
Other definitions describe public engagement in terms of a particular endgame, for example public confidence in decision-makers and public empowerment (Borchelt & Hudson, 2008), or enhanced expert insight into public opinion (Wooden, 2006). One definition calls public engagement the creation of ‘a real and meaningful mechanism for public input to be heard far enough upstream in science and technology policymaking and program development to influence decisions’ and to ‘craft policy that enjoys public confidence’ (Borchelt & Hudson, 2008). This definitions jives with the classification of public engagement as an ‘intervention strategy’ (Bradbury, Branch, & Focht, 1999) in terms of public opinion and trust. According to Wooden, 2006, the process of public engagement in science produces ‘adequate funding for scientific research, high valuation of scientific research in the formation of government policy, and appropriate regulations,’ achieving these results through a process in which the public weighs in on science policy.
Additional definitions of public engagement focus more on the structure of the engagement endeavors. The Research Councils UK (2011) define public engagement as ‘any activity that engages the public with research, from science communication in science festivals, to consultation, to public dialogue,’ where two-way communication is a measure of activity performance.
Debate over what degree of public involvement is necessary for a particular exercise to qualify as public engagement has prompted a conceptual definition in terms of three distinguishable sub-concepts or activities of engagement: science communication, public consultation, and public participation (Rowe & Frewer, 2005). These various component activities that make up the whole of public engagement in science are differentiated based on the type of ‘flow of information’ involved, where communication is one-way from leadership to public, consultation is one-way from public to leadership, and participation is two-way in the form of genuine dialogue.
An initiative for public engagement in science may, and probably should, incorporate all three of these engagement activities. For example, introductory information broadcasts or lecture series (science communication) may be followed by opinion polls, surveys, structured online interaction, or citizen panels addressing public knowledge and opinions/concerns on science-related issues (consultation), which activities would inform subsequent workshops, online forums, or other deliberative settings enabling two-way discussions between science experts and the public (participation). Through two-way participation, the public would have the opportunity to share their need for more information, their concerns, or their decisions on science-related agenda and policy.
Theoretical and operational definitions of public engagement are historically classified into two different approaches: the deficit versus the dialogue approach. The first focuses on a dearth of public information, or a ‘knowledge gap’ between scientific experts and the public (Wooden, 2006), and is associated with pure one-way communications: decision-making agencies and expert advisors first determining policy and then communicating their solutions to the wider public (Jasanoff, 1990), operationalized as lecture series or TV broadcasts. The more developed dialogue approach encompasses deliberative public engagement techniques (Research Councils UK, 2011) that involve expert framing of issues from a combination of scientific, technical, social, political reality perspectives, and two-way discussion with the public on particular decision benefits, drawbacks, and costs (Wooden, 2006).
The choice of a deficit vs. dialogue model of public engagement is of import to what we mean by the public. According to the deficit model, the public is defined as “mere recipients of information” whereas the public is defined as “contributors to social intelligence, fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens… shaped by common values, concerns, and aspirations” according to the dialogue model (Gregory, Agar, Lock, & Harris, 2007).
Public engagement has been set apart from orchestrated communications or marketing, one-way forms of communication typically carried out by public relations, media, or communication specialists (Research Councils UK, 2011), while successful engagement almost always involves some degree of two-way communications (Wooden, 2006).
An effective public engagement exercise should include at the minimum representative participants and some degree of dialogue that empowers the public with knowledge, informs public opinion, and facilitates citizen contribution to agenda and policy. The two-way communication approach is a common point amongst the most recent and innovative definitions of public engagement.
Public Agenda (2011) devised 10 Core Principles of Public Engagement, principles that include respectful listening, attention to leading concerns, broad representation, structured and informed deliberation through proper framing [of scientific issues], proper timing and amount of information [especially complex and technical science-related information]. Core principles of successful public engagement also include adequate time for deliberation, multiple and varied opportunities for dialogue and future involvement, and follow-up communication related to the impacts of the engagement exercise on scientific research funding and science policy decisions. These core principles apply to public engagement in science, and should typify any successful engagement exercise between scientific experts, decision makers on scientific issues, and the public.
Adapted from Public Engagement, an Introduction of Research Methods in Mass Communication course assignment by Paige Brown, Sept 2011, Louisiana State University
Borchelt, R., & Hudson, K. (2008, April 21). Engaging the scientific community with the public – communication as a dialogue, not a lecture. Science Progress, Spring-Summer, 78-81. Retrieved from http://scienceprogress.org/2008/04/engaging-the-scientific-community-with-the-public/
Bradbury, J. A., Branch, K. M., & Focht, W. (1999). Trust and public participation in risk policy issues. In R. E. Lofstedt, & G. Cvetkovich (Eds.), Social trust and the management of risk (pp. 117-127). London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.
Gregory, J., Agar, J., Lock, S., & Harris, S. (2007). Public engagement of science in the private sector: a new form of PR? In M. W. Bauer, & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, Science and Society: Science Communications between News and Public Relations (pp. 203-213). New York, New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
Jasanoff, S. (1990). The fifth branch: science advisors as policymakers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Public Agenda. (2008). Public engagement: a primer from Public Agenda. Public Agenda, Center for Advances in Public Engagement. New York: Public Agenda. Retrieved from http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/public_engagement_primer_0.pdf
Public Agenda. (2011). FAQs: all about public engagement. (L. Birnback, Editor) Retrieved September 17, 2011, from Public Agenda: http://www.publicagenda.org/publicengagement/public-engagement-frequently-asked-questions#faq1
Research Councils UK. (2011, September 14). What is public engagement? Retrieved from Research Councils UK: www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/scisoc/peupdate.pdf
Rowe, G., & Frewer, L. J. (2005, Spring). A typology of public engagement mechanisms. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 30(2), 251-290. doi:10.1177/0162243904271724
Rowe, G., Horlick-Jones, T., Walls, J., Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. F. (2008, October). Analysis of a normative framework for evaluating public engagement excercises: reliability, validity and limitations. Public Understanding of Science, 17(4), 419-441. doi:10.1177/0963662506075351
Wooden, R. (2006, Fall). The principles of public engagement: at the nexus of science, public policy influence, and citizen education. Social Research, 73(3), 1057-1063.
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