Uncertainties about public engagement

The thinktank Demos has released another report on science and public engagement. The Public Value of Science is, in some ways, a follow up to their earlier pamphlet See-through Science. But whereas the earlier report was rather confident in its diagnosis of the failings of previous attempts to engage the public in science, and in its prescription of a new type of “upstream engagement”, the new report seems much more uncertain in its tone.

On the face of it, this is odd, because the news seems good. There is no evidence of any growing crisis in public confidence in science; on the contrary, the report quotes a recent opinion poll from the UK which found that “86 per cent of people think science ‘makes a good contribution to society’– up 5 per cent on two years ago.”. And the idea of “upstream engagement” is riding high in fashionability, both in government and among the scientific great and good. Nonetheless, there seems to be a nagging worry, a sense that this conversion to real public engagement is only skin deep. It’s true that there’s been some open opposition (for example from Lord Taverne’s organisation, Sense about Science) but this seems to worry Demos less than the feeling that all the attention paid to public engagement still amounts to little more than lip-service, leading to “a well-meaning, professionalised and busy field,propelled along by its own conferences and reports, but never quite impinging on fundamental practices,assumptions and cultures. “

I think they are quite right. The danger they have identified is that all this activity about public engagement still isn’t actually pulling the levers they need to operate to achieve their ambition, which is to steer the direction of the research enterprise itself. The next phase is to work on what they call the “software” of scientific engagement – “the codes,values and norms that govern scientific practice,but which are far harder to access and change.” This is a much more difficult matter than simply setting up a few focus groups and citizens’ juries. In essence, their aim here is to use the input from this kind of deliberative process to redefine the way the scientific community defines “good science”.

This kind of cultural shift isn’t entirely unprecedented. In fact, I’ve argued myself that the rise of nanoscience itself constitutes just such a shift; in this case the definition of good science swung away from testing theories and characterising materials, and towards making widgets or gizmos. But the process of change is difficult, unpredictable and hard to control. It’s not about the Minister for Science issuing a rational order to his obedient research councils; the process is probably closer to the way fashions spread among sub-teenagers. The editors of Nature and Science, like the editors of Smash Hits, might think they have some influence, but they’re at the mercy of the social dynamics of the playground. One obvious difficulty is that the values of the scientific enterprise are now highly globalized. All over the world scientists aspire to publish the same kinds of paper in the same journals, and to be invited to the same conferences. Another difficulty is the sheer self-confidence of the scientific community. Lord Broers’ Reith lectures captured the spirit exactly – paraphrasing Marx, scientists may concede that philosophers and social scientists have done something to understand the world, but scientists and technologists have a deep conviction that it is they who have changed it.

Moving to some more parochial issues, the report identifies some specific barriers that UK scientific politics puts in the way of their vision. The Research Assessment Exercise, which determines the level of baseline research funding in UK universities over a five year period, operates on a strictly disciplinary basis, using peer review of papers describing original research. There’s been some lip-service paid to the notion that there may be valid outputs that aren’t papers in Physical Review Letters, but I’m not sure many people are going to be willing to gamble on this, and I can’t disagree with Demos’s conclusion that ‘”it reinforces the model ofthe highly specialised researcher,locked in a cycle of publish-or-perish”. The research councils clearly see some of the problems and are starting some useful initiatives, but they’re hampered by the difficulty that the different councils have in working cooperatively. The big picture, though, is that there are precious few career incentives for scientists to divert their efforts in this way, and quite a few significant disincentives.

The big weakness in the Demos analysis, in my view, is its failure to address the issue of the power of the market. The authors are very equivocal about the growing emphasis on the commercialisation of university generated research. Agreeing that in principle this is a good thing, they nonetheless report ” growing disquiet among university scientists that the drive for ever closer ties with business is distorting research priorities”, and worry about the effects of this on the openness and integrity of the research process. All these are valid concerns, but what’s missing is a recognition that the market is now the predominant mechanism by which technology impacts on society. Demos says “We believe everyone should be able to make personal choices in their daily lives that contribute to the common good. “ The truth is, the way society is set up now what people buy is one of the major ways in which these choices are made. And the messages that people send through the market by these personal choices might well differ from the messages they would send if you asked them directly. If you ask a bunch of young people where they would like to see money spent to develop nanotechnology, they might well answer that they’d like to see it being spent on improving the environment and on ending world poverty, but then if they go and spend their money on iPods and personal care products their votes are effectively cast for quite different priorities.

This isn’t to say that the market is a very efficient way of setting research priorities – far from it. At the moment we have marketing and product development people making more or less informed guesses (which often turn out to be spectacularly inaccurate) about what people are going to want to buy. On the other hand, researchers are obliged to try and predict some kind of application for the outcome of their research when they apply for funding, and to do this they end up trying to guess, not so much what the potential markets might be, but what they think will best match the preconceptions of referees and research councils. Somehow the idea that in ten years everyone will want flexible television sets, or personal gene testing kits, or neutriceutical laden yoghourts, enters and spreads through the collective mind of the research community like a Pokemon craze. This isn’t to say that these ideas are necessarily wrong; it’s just that the process by which they gain currency is not particularly well controlled or evidence based. It’s this sort of process that sociologists of science ought to understand, but I’m not convinced they do.

13 thoughts on “Uncertainties about public engagement”

  1. I am afraid I am skeptical about these kinds of initiatives. Here is a rather cynical rant about what is happening.

    To me this smacks of a power grab by a self-selected elite which claims to represent the people. You, the European academic community, have tried to satisfy them in the past by mouthing politically correct platitudes but they know that this doesn’t give them real power. They want more. They want to run things. They want to direct and divert research funding. They want to control the flow of money. That’s where real power is.

    And you’re stuck now, because by paying lip service to their position you have acknowledged the correctness of their philosophy. You didn’t try to take a stand and come up with a philosophical justification of the scientific process as it has been traditionally practiced. That would not have been politically correct and would have required you to take a reactionary position that is not consistent with modern academic trends. So you backed down and you said, oh yes, you’re right, science should be a democracy, none of this individualistic nonsense where research groups set their own agendas.

    Opening up control of research to groups which have at their heart a hatred of science and everything it represents is only going to further degrade the progress of European science as it competes with the rest of the world. Do you think Americans or especially Chinese researchers are going to worry about what the local enviromentalists have to say? It’s not even going to come up in China, and in America the research/industrial community will fight back, as they have done with GM crops and other areas. Europe is going to be left in the dust.

    Okay, rant mode off.

  2. Thanks for that useful corrective, Hal. I’m not necessarily going to disagree, but it’s worth making a few points. It’s certainly true that there are some elements who are deeply opposed to technology in general, and who do purport, an a rather patronizing and undemocratic way, to represent “the people” . The people at Demos definitely do not fall into this category.

    And it’s definitely a bad plan to rise to your “my continent is better than yours” riff, not least because I still idealistically believe that science is the only truly international culture we have. But the picture is more nuanced than you paint. It’s certainly true that European scientists and policy makers deeply regret the GM saga, though they’re often inclined to blame Monsanto as much as Greenpeace. But Europe was way ahead of the USA getting cellphones and the mobile internet going, and stem cell and regenerative medicine work is cheerfully steaming forward in the UK while the US federal government agonises about its religious supporters.

    The truth is that politics intrudes on science everywhere, whether that’s Europe, North America or China. And that’s actually quite proper, given the large amount of taxpayers money that keeps it going. The trick is to manage the interaction in a way which best preserves both the integrity of science and maximises the benefits it produces. It’s not clear to me that the USA currently offers the best example of this at the moment – I think the idea that powerful legislators like Joe Barton can intimidate individual scientists because they don’t like their results is deeply shocking. I’ll not even start on the “intelligent design” argument. None of us is really in a position to throw stones here; the interaction between science and politics is intrinsically difficult to manage, but it has to be done and Demos is to be commended for making a serious effort to think about it, even though I’m sure we’ll all disagree with some of their conclusions.

  3. Hal, your remarks leave me a bit puzzled because on the one hand you make out a “self-selected elite” (of NT-skeptics) who seems to be undeservedly pushing the scientists’ agenda whereas at the same time your pro-freedom-of-science-argument sounds awfully elitist, too.

    I would like to know if your remarks concerning the scientists’ attitude in the US and in China is only a kind of realpolitik, acknowledging the way things are, or if you mean it.

    In the latter case I would find it dangerously naive. The fact that the US has had no big anti-GMO backlash doesn’t mean there could be one such thing happening on another field.

    As an outside observer to the NT community (and the NT-skeptics, too) I am getting nervous, to say the least, about the lip service of the kind of “We’ve got to learn from the GMO mistake” with no concretization as well as about the outright refusal of an open debate about NT. At the core is old school thinking about technology.

    Technology is neither an add-on to civilisation nor applied science. It’s the modus operandi of our economic system and the very fabric of modern life. So we as the public surely can question the work of scientists and technologists like we do with the work of politicians, CEOs and whoever is acting upon society.

    So why not take the chance and shape a necessary debate right from the start? What’s the real problem about that?

  4. Richard, you’re right that America has its own problems, and no doubt China does as well. I didn’t mean it as a blanket statement that those other cultures are doing better. Rather, I was pointing at this sensitivity to environmental populism as Europe’s particular burden, which you seemed to be supporting.

    If you had written APPROVINGLY of the need to do science that was acceptable to religious conservatives, I would make the same kind of criticism. But the American research establishment does not do that. They don’t support Intelligent Design, and they fight for stem cell research. They are leading the fight against these restrictions.

    Where is the European academic communities’ comparably principled stand against giving up its autonomy to politically correct environmentalism?

  5. I have yet to meet a “politically correct environmentalist”, but I am sure it is a nice label to bandy about.

    On the other hand, I have seen some normal members of the public express doubts about the directions that things they do not know about seem to be leading them. Its a problem that I have been looking at with the current intelligent design versus evolutionary biology brouhaha. Most people dont have the time or inclination to learn the depth of science necessary to understand what is going on in many fields of scientific endeavour. I have enough trouble knowing roughly what is going on in nanotehnology and so on even though I am science educated. Therefore it is somewhat silly to expect most people to be able to comment on the directions that scientific research takes.

    What is a different story, is whether that scientific knowledge should be used or not. The decision in europe about GM crops seems to be “no”. On the other hand stem cell and embryo research seems to be less problematic, in part because it can safely take place behind a laboratory door and doesnt intrude into peoples lives in a messy and uncontrolled manner. In considering all this, you are moving into areas of ethics and value judgements, which scientists have tried to avoid when actually working.

    I was pleased to note that Richard Jones says about the Demos report:
    ” The truth is, the way society is set up now what people buy is one of the major ways in which these choices are made.”

    The market has no ethics, and is to a large extent anti-social. Therein lies the danger of letting it control research priorities. Is science only engineering whose job it is to create new gizmos?

    I would answer no. I personally tend towards a view of science as an important endeavour for learning about the world and everything in it, and the fact that it also produces gizmos is besides the point.

    Finally, I would just like to ask who actually has the money to guide the reasearch? The corporations or the environmentalists? Apart from the recent problem with the place supplying lab animals, what real damage to science in the UK has actually claimed to be done by environmental pressure?

  6. “I personally tend towards a view of science as an important endeavour for learning about the world and everything in it, and the fact that it also produces gizmos is besides the point.”

    I could not agree more. Compare and contrast, however, with the following statements from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s summary of the UK Government’s “Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004 – 2014”:

    Research Councils’ programmes to be more strongly influenced by and delivered in partnership with end users of research…

    …continue to improve UK performance in knowledge transfer and commercialisation from universities …

    Indicators: RCs’ engagements with business and public service end users; Patent applications and grants; Intellectual property licences; Joint publications between science base and industry; Spin-outs number and value

    For much more on the UK government’s ‘vision’ for knowledge transfer and the promotion of business-relevant research, see the Science and Innovation Framework document available at: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/95846/spend04_sciencedoc_1_090704.pdf


  7. I agree Philip. When I was in 4th year at uni, (6 years ago) we had to do an essay on one of several topics, and I wrote one suggesting we had gone a bit too far in university research towards commercialisation. Anecdotally, I understand a lot of research groups have their own pet projects running, funed with bits of money hived off from the commercial money spinning research that depends more upon using the corrext buzzwords (eg nanotechnology). I mean, commercialisation and knowledge transfer etc are worthy goals, but I would rather universities concentrated more on blue skys research, leaving more of the immediately practical stuff to companies.

  8. I’m probably more comfortable than Philip and Guthrie about looking for applications for publically funded science in principle, but I’m all too aware that in the case of much (most?) science that has had important practical applications, it wasn’t at all obvious when the science was being done what the applications are going to be. But it does seem to me that, in the UK at least, and increasingly in other countries too, industry is failing to meet its side of the bargain and is looking to universities and publically funded agencies to do work that is getting quite close to product development. The DTI, particularly in their MNT program, seem to be encouraging this.

  9. Hal, I’m inclined to agree with guthrie that “politically correct environmental populism” is a great slogan, but it doesn’t do much for the coherent analysis of European science politics. A couple of reality checks first. There is no United States of Europe; it’s a diverse continent with a lot of different strong national cultures, which bring very different attitudes to science and technology. Green politics, for example, is, in electoral terms, of some significance in Germany. The Green participation in the recent German government made some difference to science policy (see a recent Nature editorial for an analysis of this), particularly in the area of nuclear power. But, in contrast, in France and the UK green parties are of negligible electoral importance.

    Looking at some specific examples, agricultural biotechnology is obviously an area where there have been big differences between the USA and Europe. Many scientists, of course, were very vocal in support of agri-biotech, but ultimately it went down, not because of political restrictions imposed by environmentalists, but because of the power of the market. People just didn’t buy the stuff. Actually, I don’t believe that environmentalism was a big factor in this rejection. The issues were more about trust in the management of the food chain by both government and business, particularly in the wake of the BSE epidemic. Cultural issues are important too, particularly in France, where food and drink are rather central to the national self-image. It’s worth remembering that France is in many ways a highly technophilic country – 76% of its power comes from nuclear power (compared to only 20% in the USA), which seems to be cheerfully accepted by most ends of the political spectrum.

    There’s a lot of lazy stereotyping in the media’s treatment of science politics in the USA and Europe, but we ought to try and do better.

  10. Richard, Thanks for your thoughtful and perceptive comments on our new pamphlet. You’re right to highlight the more ambivalent note that we strike in relation to public engagement. Of course, we still believe engagement is vital and important, but do worry at times that the proliferation of activity in this area – especially around nanotechnologies – may not actually be moving us very far forward. Hence the accompanying focus in this piece on the cultures, incentives and other norms that influence scientific practice.

    Your points about the role of the market are well made, and I agree this is a weakness in our argument, which is primarily orientated towards publicly-funded research. We did discuss these issues a bit in our earlier piece ‘See-through Science’, but I agree that these questions need a lot more thought than they’ve so far received. Despite the pivotal importance of the private sector to debates around science, technology and society, there are still big gaps in our understanding of the relationships between innovation, markets, democracy and the public interest.

    Part of the difficulty is simply getting close enough to these processes to understand them better. To give just one example from our own experience – we’ve been trying for the past six months to encourage a company with nanotech R&D interests to join our OST-funded Sciencewise project – The NanoDialogues – http://www.demos.co.uk/projects/currentprojects/nanodialogues/ – but so far no company has been willing to put its head above the parapet and get involved in an open, public and policy discussion of these issues. In our experience, despite the rhetoric that’s been swirling around since the GM crops debate, it seems that most science-based companies haven’t really learnt the painful lessons from Monsanto about the need for open dialogue.

    I’d be keen for Demos to look at these questions in a lot more detail, but as you can imagine, funders aren’t exactly queuing up to support such research – which as Philip’s comment reminds us – runs counter to the entire thrust of UK government policy. However, we’ll hopefully publish something that touches more on these questions as part of our ESRC project on nano and upstream engagement ( http://www.demos.co.uk/projects/currentprojects/ESRCnanotech/ )

    Finally, on your last point about lazy caricatures of US and European attitudes to science and technology, I’d heartily recommend Sheila Jasanoff’s new book ‘Designs on Nature’, which provides a brilliant analysis of the different political and public approaches to biotechnology in the UK, US and Germany. I wrote a review of this the other day, which gives more details: http://www.demosgreenhouse.co.uk/archives/001023.html

  11. Apologies for the spelling in previous posts, I should proofread more often.

    I do agree with looking for applications for publicly funded science, and when wearing my nice liberal hat have no problem with spin offs etc of university work. (As long as we can sort out how much of the profits end up back in the public purse.) But its when the companies seem to be setting the basic research agenda that I see problems. Yet some companies do do good basic reasearch, and fund useful programs, its a matter of getting the balance right.

  12. I want to bring up a related point of philosophy, where you write:

    “Another difficulty is the sheer self-confidence of the scientific community. Lord Broers’ Reith lectures captured the spirit exactly – paraphrasing Marx, scientists may concede that philosophers and social scientists have done something to understand the world, but scientists and technologists have a deep conviction that it is they who have changed it.”

    I’m not sure if you are agreeing with Marx and criticizing this view, that technology has shaped the world and will continue to do so, but if you are, then I think that is a critique which needs defending. Broers is not alone in looking around the world and seeing the fruits of science and technology everywhere. Medical progress alone has arguably done more to improve the human condition than all the works of philosophers and social scientists. Our reasonable expectations of long, healthy lives, of seeing our children survive and grow, these changes have alleviated so much suffering that it is hard to see how the works of even the greatest philosophers can compare.

    The notion that such a viewpoint presents a “difficulty” to the program you appear to be endorsing again suggests to me how wrong-headed is the direction these organizations are headed. I know that certain political movements feel resentment against the success of science and technology, and that this view is part of what I have characterized as political correctness. Defending science, as is done in the Reith lectures you link to, is seen as old-fashioned and reactionary, enshrining the power of dead white males and promoting a notion of absolute truth which is rejected by post-modern analysis.

    In my opinion, the effective pursuit of science is flatly inconsistent with the views that are popular among modern day philosophers and sociologists. I don’t know how you are going to be able to walk the knife edge between encouraging this notion of science via democracy, and maintaining an effective, truth-driven scientific research program. Scientific truth is not found by popular vote, and fashionable relativism has no place in the laboratory.

  13. Hal, to be clear about where I stand on this, yes, I think science and technology has decisively shaped the world we live in today, and, yes, I think that these changes have been (with a few exceptions) very much for the better. I also believe that one can state, with a solid evidence base, that humanity is currently existentially dependent on science and technology, so any notion that we can relinquish the pursuit of science is fundamentally anti-democratic and unhumane (see for example my comments on Bill McKibben’s book Enough, here: http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/?p=15). I should also say that whenever I am talking about nanotechnology to public audiences (which is quite frequently) I make these points strongly.

    What’s really important to understand about proposals like those coming from Demos is that these aren’t attempting to change scientific practise or scientific outcomes. So this isn’t like arguments about the validity of animal experimentation, which address the first of these, or arguments about intelligent design or climate change science, which address the second. What they are interested in is scientific culture. This is nothing to do with rejecting a “truth-driven scientific research program” or putting “fashionable relativism” into the laboratory. It’s about the practices of science as a collective enterprise; how choices are made about what science to fund, about the reward systems that cause people to choose how to steer their career. This is the stuff that I deal with most of the time as a working scientist – writing papers that I hope will appeal to the editors of “good journals”, refereeing papers, as a journal editor resolving disputes between authors and referees, consulting for companies, writing grant proposals, refereeing grant proposals, sitting on committees and panels, giving advice to government agencies. No-one can imagine that this stuff is value free; on the contrary it’s shot through with politics. Ultimately publically funded science involves spending tax-payers’ money in large quantities, and I don’t see how one can disagree with the proposition that it needs to have some kind of democratic legitimacy. This isn’t the democracy of saying “60% of the population doesn’t believe in evolution so we shouldn’t teach people that it’s true”. It’s more like saying “people support science if it will lead to medical benefits, so we’d better make sure that we’re spending enough there that we can demonstrably deliver some”.

    I would have thought that the need to do this is obvious. In the UK, there’s probably never been a time in my career when science has had more political support, but I can’t help feeling that this support is wide but shallow. This is not least because there isn’t a deep respect and appreciation for the historical achievements of science and technology. I’m convinced we need to get this public engagement agenda right to deepen political support for science by making it clear that its objectives have democratic legitimacy. I’m not sure that it’s a knife edge I’m trying to walk, but it’s certainly difficult and frustrating, as perhaps my post about Nanojury shows.

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