Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A 3D look at public understanding of science

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

The three Ds of deficit, dialogue, and deliberation have dominated discussions on public understanding of science for quite a while. As a result there has been a flood of studies on processes of public engagement that have gone beyond filling in perceived gaps of knowledge between scientists and lay persons to intense and informed dialogues and, ultimately, to an architecture of deliberation among a variety of stakeholders.

But, as the current special issue of PUS on “Public engagement of science” suggests, there hasn’t been enough of a reflection on these engagement processes nor is there a sufficiently deep exploration of the social and political contexts of such processes. Despite a widely acknowledged move from ‘deficit to dialogue’, there is a sense that “dialogue continues to reflect deficit-like assumptions,” say the issue’s co-editors, Jack Stilgoe, Simon Lock, and James Wilsdon, in their introductory piece.

The invited articles in the special issue are indeed deeply reflective. Patrick Sturgis of the University of Southampton raises fundamental questions around ensuring all relevant perspectives are represented and heard in any participatory exercise and whether in fact the public supports direct participatory approaches science governance, as proponents of public engagement have long assumed. When participatory practices occur, he points out in his piece, it is important to look at who tends to be involved. Most participants in current processes, he says, are “disproportionately drawn from groups with higher socio-economic status, greater interest in the topic area, and more strongly-held views”. Moreover, these processes tend to generate outcomes that are at least unconsciously influenced by institutions or individuals organizing them, he adds.

For Michael Burgess of the University of British Columbia, processes of deliberation are not always “sufficient to ensure that deliberations have effects on policy or practice”. His article voices concern about “consultations” conferring “legitimacy without having influence”.

SheilaJasanoff of Harvard University calls for a “more robust conception of publics”, arguing that publics are neither ignorant nor simple demographic clusters but are groups “dynamically constituted by changes in social contexts”. In her thought piece, “A mirror for science”, she says that “these issue-oriented publics enter the political arena and participate in imagining scientific and technological futures as knowledgeable actors”. In further problematizing the idea of publics, Brian Wynne of Lancaster University, makes the point that we can never make sense of publics responding to science unless “we examine what it is that those publics experience”.

This special issue forces us to think through each aspect of public understanding of science. The public is not a monolithic entity nor is science. And understanding is not a one-way knowledge transfer; it is a deeper engagement of varying facets of science and technology with publics in their different social and political contexts.