Let’s Have Some Enthusiasm Please: Geeks and Politics in Public Engagement with Science

Evening all, apologies for the lengthy absence.  I have been immersed – immersed, I tell you – in putting together a ‘critical literature review’.  Or, as it’s informally known, the eighth circle of hell.  Turns out that being woken at 6am by a cleaner who wants to vacuum the library you’ve fallen asleep in isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds.  But, having walked through the flames and emerged battered and blinking and entirely caffeine-powered, I’m feeling sufficiently oracle-like to share my visions with you all.  I’d also point out that these ideas are forming the basis of an application I’m currently putting together so if any of you know of any useful directions I can point my nose in pre-interviews and the like, please shout out.  You could have shouted out earlier when I was writing the thing, but I’ll let that slide.

So, what have I been writing on? An excellent question.  I’ve been writing on the Public Engagement with Science.  This is a current buzzword (or buzzfourwords, I suppose) in science studies, and has its roots in the late 20th century.  In 1985 the Royal Society produced a report on ‘The Public Understanding of Science’.  This was in the days when reports were brief (cough http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leveson_Inquiry#The_report cough), so the whole thing was basically summed up in the first paragraph:

Science and technology play a major role in most aspects of our daily lives both at home and at work.  Our industry and thus our national prosperity depend on them. Almost all public policy issues have scientific or technological implications. Everybody, therefore, needs some understanding of science, its accomplishments and its limitations.

Okay, there’s a few more things, like making an extensive science education a compulsory part of British schooling, or forcing scientists to actually be publically communicative.  But that paragraph is basically the gist of the Public Understanding of Science movement, which changed the landscape of public science in Britain 1985-2000.

But, dear reader, all was not so rosy.  As scientists began to feel comfortable shouting their achievements out to the wider world, and as ‘outreach’ became a recognisable function of many scientific establishments, dedicated – nay, heroic – sociologists of science were quietly beavering away in the background.  They were questioning a fundamental premise of the Public Understanding approach – that to know science is to love it.  Not so, it transpired.  Surveys carried out by John Durant and Geoffrey Evans suggested that the public knowing or understanding more science didn’t necessarily equal being happy about all the things science was up to.  Issues of public confidence in science came to a head with the BSE epidemic http://www.accessexcellence.org/WN/NM/madcow96.php. Another report was written (by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology) in 2000.  This one was a lot longer, but they did consult sociologists of science which was nice of them.  The conclusion was that scientists and government needed to build on the “new mood for dialogue” the Committee noted amongst science communicators and sociologists.  The public were no longer to simply be the conclusion of a one-way flow of scientific information, but were to be actively engaged in two-way dialogue with scientists, communicators, and governmental authorities.  And so, with fanfare, the Public Engagement of Science was born.

So what were those crucial sociological findings?  Well, there were lots.  But possibly the most notable was Brian Wynne’s study of radioactive sheep.  Yes, you did read that sentence correctly.  When Chernobyl happened (to put it somewhat euphemistically) the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Farming (MAFF) were concerned about radiation blowing over from Russia and contaminating sheep in Cumbrian hill-farms.  So they sent some scientists to check things out.  The scientists found radiation, so the MAFF restricted sale and movement of sheep for a short while to wait for it all to clear up.  The scientists kept checking, the sheep apparently kept radiating, and the MAFF kept extending their restrictions.  The farmers, unsurprisingly, were unimpressed.  They were particularly unimpressed with the disjunction between the messy reality of the scientists’ tests – the farmers related to Wynne stories of underprepared scientists trying to take accurate readings from sheep who “do tend to jump about a bit” – and the somewhat overconfident certainty of the final reports.  The farmers, as farmers, noted all sorts of glaring errors in the reports that the scientists, as scientists, had left unconsidered.  But the MAFF listened to the scientists, and the scientists alone.

Wynne’s wonderful work has had a big impact.  For a start, Wynne was one of the sociologists consulted by the House of Lords in 2000.  His approach of participant sociology (i.e. hanging around with recorders* in places where interesting stuff is happening) now crops up regularly.  For instance, as part of the new mood for engagement, The Government has increasingly been setting up ‘Citizen’s Juries’.  These groups are designed to make policy decisions on particular scientific-technological decisions, and they include scientists, administrative officials, and laypeople.  And sociologists, who help ensure that the whole setup is constructed to ensure successful engagement.**  This is great all round for the sociologists, who get lots of great opportunities to get lots of great data on how public behave in situations of engagement.  But sociology isn’t just data collection.  Some very exciting theoretical and methodological work has emerged around public engagement with science.  Directly drawing on Wynne’s study, Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and the Cardiff School of Social Science have been developing Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE – http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/contactsandpeople/harrycollins/expertise-project/concepts/index.html), which suggests that non-scientists – such as Wynne’s farmers – may possess particular or local ‘experience-based expertise’, which must be used in conjunction with scientific expertise in some (but not all***) technical decisions.  The even more dramatically named ‘post-normal science’ of Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz (http://www.nusap.net/sections.php?op=viewarticle&artid=13) suggests that much ongoing scientific work – in particular climate change, biotechnology, and economic modelling – actually involve the public in their field of study.  This makes such ‘post-normal sciences’ really complicated, as public response to scientific pronouncements actually affects public behaviour and therefore the science.  Under such circumstances post-normal science should be aiming for ‘quality’ rather than ‘truth’, and the public should be involved in assessing this quality as an ‘extended peer community’.  So, when it comes to public engagement with policy-related science decisions, sociologists get very excited.  And excited sociologists leads to some very interesting discussions indeed.

All of this is well-covered ground.  But this is where I come in with my sword of critical review.  As I’ve repeatedly noted above, policy-related public engagement has been great for sociology of science.  Sociologists get hired by political bodies, they’re asked to sit in on policy discussions, they get to propose grand new models of public engagement for governmental perusal.   Which is great.  But it is all very heavily to do with policy.  The data comes from political controversies (radioactive sheep) or political activities (citizens’ juries).  The theorists explicitly restrict their new theories to policy-related science.  The net result is that public engagement with science which isn’t anything to do with policy gets the cold shoulder.  And that sort of engagement does happen.  It happens in online discussion forums, amongst the increasingly self-defining and increasingly vocal ‘Geek Communities’.  These have been written about – just look at the majestic Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto****.  I’ve also found a freelance science communicator called Hayly Birch who writes about forums on science podcasts, as well as essays in academic collections on The Naked Scientists, The Triple Helix, and The Blogosphere (whoop whoop).  These are all interesting places where all sorts of interesting science-engaged dialogues go on between scientists and non-scientists. And the (limited) literature I’ve found on them provides some interesting information on exactly what goes on in these places.

But, with no offence intended to the authors, they’re not sociologists.  They’re advocates, cheerleaders.  They’re showing how successful particular geek communities have been, with the idea that others can learn from their success.  They’re not trying to be sociologists.  But I think a lot’s being missed – there’s no comparative work between communities, or critical assessment of how different ideas of ‘success’ apply in different contexts, or attempts to systematically analyse how and why individuals use these geek networks.  These are all really interesting questions.  And these geek networks are a lot bigger than citizens’ juries, with online conversations providing a vast amount of usable source material.  But it’s being underused.  So basically I’ve diagnosed two different forms of literature – ‘consultant’ literature and ‘enthusiast literature’.  Consultant literature incorporates some of the leading sociology of science of today, but applied to quite narrow policy-based cases.  Enthusiast literature brings a huge amount of ever-growing source material to the table, but lacks any sophisticated theoretical approach.

I reckon there’s ways of bringing sociological theory to the enthusiasts.  So, pending application permitting, that’s hopefully what I’m off to do.  Although I’ll get some sleep first.  And not on a library sofa this time.


* = As in, recording devices.  They’re not just providing backing music.

** = An interesting example, and discussion, is Alan Irwin’s work for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.   http://pus.sagepub.com/content/10/1/1.abstract. Or a cursory summary for those without access rights http://www.univie.ac.at/virusss/opus/Irwin.pdf

*** = A really important part of the SEE project is that public engagement can actually be detrimental to many scientific and technological decisions.  I managed to forget this point.  In an email exchange with Harry Collins.  Awkward doesn’t even begin to cover it.

**** = For anyone who’s forgotten my massive love for Henderson, https://sidewayslookatscience.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/its-all-geek-to-me-science-and-skepticism/.  I actually saw him in the flesh recently.  Turns out my shrine is actually quite accurate

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One Response to Let’s Have Some Enthusiasm Please: Geeks and Politics in Public Engagement with Science

  1. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Hi Oliver. You might like this piece by Sarah Davies, on engagement outside politics. She shares some of your sentiments http://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=en&user=k92B8z4AAAAJ&citation_for_view=k92B8z4AAAAJ:d1gkVwhDpl0C

    By the way, really enjoying this blog. You should have mentioned it. There are far too few science policy and engagement bloggers.

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