Viewpoint: Neil Ward

Portrait of Neil Ward

Current role:
Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences
University of East Anglia

What is the point of public engagment?

British universities are increasingly considering how they engage with the public.  This is a good thing because what universities are for, how their activities are funded, and how they manage their business remains little understood in the wider world.   

Public engagement has recently become a prominent agenda for researchers and research funders.  Six University 'Beacons for Public Engagement' have been established to experiment and learn lessons.  The rationale for public engagement is multi-faceted and can sometimes appear contradictory.  First, universities are largely publicly-funded and so there is a moral responsibility to serve the public interest.  Second, universities can attract additional funding by demonstrating the relevance and socio-economic impact of their activities, so a reputation for engagement can be useful.  Third, more engaged universities are seen as inherently a good thing in improving social capital, empowering individuals and improving local institutions.  

Here, I want to briefly critique these rationales and add a fourth - that through public engagement universities can become more effective institutions in delivering their own core business of research and teaching.  

Implicit within the dominant rationales for public engagement is what is commonly known as the deficit model of science and society.  This assumes that scientists and universities are 'fonts' of knowledge and wisdom and 'the public' are deficient in these resources.  Engagement is therefore about imparting knowledge from one realm to the other.  Among social scientists who study the conduct of science and science policy, the deficit model has long been discredited.  However, it remains pervasive in the public mind, as well as among many scientific institutions and scientists themselves. 

Efforts at public engagement can be placed on a spectrum with the traditional deficit model at one extreme and ranging towards much deeper and more extensive public engagement in the research process.  Broadly, three types of engagement can be characterised on this spectrum. 

First is the traditional deficit model that underpinned past efforts to improve the so-called 'public understanding of science', where science is the preserve of experts, and others simply need to be educated to better understand science.  This model is also implicit in the conventional approach to 'knowledge transfer' in universities, where the academics are seen as the knowledge producers in a one-way and linear relationship with 'users'.  

A second approach could be termed 'public consultation'.  Here, the public are consulted about the research findings and invited to comment on the options and implications that might follow.  In a deeper form, there might also be consultation 'upstream' to help shape the kind of research questions that get asked in the first place through mechanisms such as workshops, focus groups and deliberative decision-making exercises.  Critically, however, this form of 'knowledge exchange' keeps the two worlds (of knowledge producers and knowledge users) relatively intact as discrete and separate worlds, though in dialogue. 

A third approach is more radical still.  Although public participation in science broadens the range of people involved, it usually leaves the practice of science largely intact.  In doing so, other sorts of knowledges (such as, for example, personal experiences) may be either deemed inadmissible, or downgraded in value compared with conventional scientific knowledge.  An alternative is to be more open about what is admissible knowledge, and to develop mutual understanding of a problem by co-producing knowledge together.   

This final approach was the subject of an experimental project which looked at risk management in flood-affected areas of England (Ryedale Flood Research Group, 2008).  The project found that by involving local people in the production of science over a sustained (12-month) period, the way the local flood problem was framed became opened up, the kind of questions asked of the science changed, flood risk had to be modelled in a different and innovative way, and a more socially robust set of research findings could be produced. In short, the deep public engagement improved the science. You can read a case study of the project here.

Universities' efforts to strengthen public engagement need to be constantly mindful of the limitations of the traditional old deficit model and open to the possibilities that engagement can be a positive influence upon the conduct of research and academic life more generally. 


With partners, the Environment Agency is currently testing the group's recommendations for flood risk management in Ryedale as part of a national pilot scheme [See more details here].  A CD of materials collected by participants is to be deposited with the local library service. Since June 2008 the research team has been conducting similar work in Sussex (currently in progress).


Callon M. (1999) The role of lay people in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge, Science, Technology and Society, 4 (1), 81-94.

Callon, M., Lascoumbes, P. and Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Demos (2004) See Through Science: Why Public Engagement Needs to Move Upstream. London: Demos.

House of Lords Science and Technology Committee (2000) Science and Society. HL 38. Session 1999-2000. London: The Stationary Office.

Research Councils UK (2007) Beacons for Public Engagement.

Ryedale Flood Research Group (2008) Making Space for People: Involving Local Knowledge in Flood Risk Research and Management in Ryedale, Yorkshire http://knowledge-