Wednesday, 7 July 2010

"Levels" of engagement

On Tuesday, I ran a couple of workshops at an event called "the engaging researcher". This is a summary of what I said.

I was initially asked to talk about "levels of engagement". I was quick to nip that title in the bud because I don't think levels are productive way of thinking about science communication. You quite often see people classifying research communication as level 1, a “top-down” talk, level 2, a discussion, and level 3, a form of “upstream” engagement where publics get to help definite the perimeters for the debate as well as take part in the debate itself. This is limiting in all sorts of ways, but I especially worry that it implies some sort of hierarchy of engagement work, a sense of linear order even. I've actually heard of people worrying that as junior researchers they couldn't be expected to manage a higher level. I find this depressing.

I can see why people apply these sorts of models. They see projects that don't quite "get" the aims of the public engagement movement, and want to challenge science communication to be better. I’d agree there is a lot of, frankly, rubbish working under the rhetoric of "engagement", and it's worth calling bad work to account. I'm also a big fan of the idea of upstream engagement. However, I don’t think implying a hierarchy of science communication is constructive. We're much better off with a qualitative approach: one that reflects on the specific people, knowledges, resources and, most of all, political agendas involved in a specific project.

To give a bit of context to this, it's worth repeating a potted history of UK science communication I give my students. As I tell them in class, read this with caution. It's the story UK science communication professionals tell themselves, and largely make-believe.
Once upon a time, around the end of the 20th century, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. They cited the popularity of the New Age movement, spiritualism, creationism, the X-files, crystal healing and the animal liberation front as The Enemy, and set up camp against them. They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, founded something called the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement, lately coalescing around a (1985) report for the Royal Society by Walter Bodmer. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists started to complain that PUS was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant. They set up their own "critical PUS" camp in opposition to what they dubbed PUS' "deficit model" (i.e. assuming the public are deficit in science). Various debates, surveys of public knowledge/ attitudes, initiatives, jargon and outright spats followed. Eventually, the sociologists stamped their feet so loudly everyone finally listened to reason, and we now all officially reject all forms of PUS, preferring a more interactive model, generally known as "engagement" or "dialogue".
It's worth knowing this as the history people work from, and there is an element of truth in it, but do take it with a big bag of salt. Arguably, much post-PUS science communication may go under nomenclature of engagement, participation or dialogue but too often such phraseology is a mirage, hiding a very traditional deficit model approach underneath. There has been some change: it would be ahistorical to say it's all the same as it was in the 1950s. Indeed, the norm of public engagement is so embedded in British science that recent research from the LSE quoted Walter Bodmer himself advocating a PEST-ish point of view. Still, we've haven't all arrived at some great enlightened age of "engagement". Let's not kid ourselves.

Rather than imagine a linear progression from PUS to PEST, I think it's better to think of a set of gradually developing, overlapping ideas and tensions when it comes to relationships between academic research and the public. I think this video by some of my students (acting out what it’s like to be a scientist in 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and today) shows a disruption to this telling of the history very neatly. It's about 7 minutes. Watch it.

During the workshop, we looked at a handful of science communication projects and reflected briefly on the ways in which they might be seen to foster various levels of engagement. They were: Colliding Particles, a set of short videos about physicists; I’m a Scientist, an innovative online project pitting teenagers' questions against groups of scientists; the THE Blue Skies debate which was sparked off after a debate between one of my old students and Lord Drayson; crowd-sourced astronomy, Galaxy Zoo and Opal, another "citizen science project" which works in a range of ways, including embedding scientists in local communities (and has even managed to get lottery funding for ecological reserach, by also providing a form of social work at the same time).

We played around with comparing these projects, and largely failed. They all do good things. They are all limited. They are all worthy of celebration and critique for a lot of different reasons. They are all part of a broad ecology of science communication. To compare one with another is simply unfair; to rank them linearly would be ridiculous.

The deficit model is a big old pile of smelly poo (though equally, also probably up there with the Two Cultures as the straw man of science in society issues), but let's not be reductive in our replacement of it.

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