Viewpoint: Sarah Davies
- Current role:
- Research Associate
- Durham University
Don't make it easy on yourself: Public engagement is hard to do
As I write, it is over nine years since a landmark report on science and society - published by the House of Lords in early 2000 - brought notions of 'dialogue' into the mainstream. Set against a backdrop of emphasis on the 'public understanding of science', the report's recommendations were startling: it spoke of two-way dialogue, a 'new humility on the part of science', and the need for public input as a standard feature of science policymaking.
Since then, however, the idea of engaging - rather than merely educating - publics has become much less revolutionary. John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, recently spoke of 'a new kind of politics, which harnesses the talents and experiences of ordinary people', and activities which seek to do this have become an everyday part of many businesses, government activities, museums, and - as this website testifies - universities. In scientific and technological development, for example - the field that I know most about - there has been a blossoming of 'upstream' public engagement, Café Scientifiques, science festivals, and Research Council-run activities, to name just a few examples.
This move, I believe, is entirely a positive one. Opening up academia and technical expertise to work with diverse groups of people will mean better science and better democracy - as well as being, experience has shown, enjoyable for all concerned. So I don't want to criticise the many exciting initiatives that are going forward; what I do want to suggest, however, is that in our enthusiasm for these we often forget that public engagement is not straightforward.
In fact, public engagement is hard. I've come to this conclusion after years as a researcher moving on the fringes of public engagement with science - attending events, interviewing participants, analysing interactions, even running a few processes myself - but I'm sure it will come as no surprise to those on the coalface. Engaging publics is hard work in terms of time, money, and energy, and - fundamentally - it's hard to get right.
Part of the reason for this is the high level of expectations we have quite rightly set ourselves. Public engagement is about the genuine exchange of experience and views, mutual learning, and the development of new knowledge and frameworks for knowledge. We can see this from 'how-to' guides such as that on the Dana Centre's website - this notes that, amongst other outcomes, dialogue event participants should 'feel that their voice has been heard; that they have had an effect (on other people, on organisations, on policy)'. Of course, what 'success' will look like will be different from activity to activity: not all public engagement aims to change research policy at the highest levels and, for some, getting participants to participate is achievement enough. But my point is more that these kinds of challenging but productive encounters don't happen naturally. They are hard work, and influenced by all sorts of contextual factors - activity format, expectations, prior experiences, even the wider national context.
So it's not enough to simply bring academics and laypeople together and expect 'dialogue' to magically happen. It's not enough, even if there are up-to-the-minute visuals and media technologies and if everyone has a really fun time, or if the venue is full to overflowing. Plentiful research studies over the last few years have shown that very many public engagement activities fall short of their own standards, whether by continuing to frame lay participants as fundamentally 'deficit', not allowing scope for genuine conversations to develop, or refusing to keep their promises as to outcomes. By giving ourselves an easy ride - by being satisfied by numbers or good evaluation scores or even the fact that our activities happened at all - we are, I think, missing the point. Because dialogue is difficult, and it always will be.
So public engagement is hard. What next? Although there are - inevitably - no straightforward answers, I think acknowledging this will change how we think about how we do engagement. What, exactly, are we trying to achieve? And why? And what is really going to be the best way of doing it? - not the most familiar, or easy, or even affordable, but the most effective. Thinking through these questions for our own activities will be hard work, and may lead to some challenging experimentation. But it may also help us live up to our own high expectations.
Sarah Davies is a 2009 Fellow of Beacon North East and a Research Associate at Durham University, where her research interests focus around public engagement with science of all kinds. She has a BSc in Biochemistry (2001), an MSc in Science Communication (2003), and a PhD (2007) studying public dialogue on science. She has also worked in exhibition development at the Science Museum, London, and taught undergraduate science students about communicating science. Her research currently focuses on public engagement with nanotechnology as part of the DEEPEN project.