Advocating Public Engagement with Science (PES)

Published: 2012-10-19

Innovation or continuity at IFS?

Graham Haylor, DirectorGraham Haylor, IFS Director

Public Engagement with Science is all about mutual learning by scientists and the many different groups which comprise “the public”. This orientation contrasts with a one-way transmission of knowledge from ‘’experts” to “the public”. Specifically, public engagement allows people with different backgrounds, experience and expertise to articulate and contribute their perspectives, ideas, knowledge, and values in response to scientific questions or science-related controversies. The engagement and dialogue can take place in countless ways, locations, and formats that can allow for creative, inventive means of conversing and reciprocated education. There is an important role for science research funding bodies, as advocates, and as a source of incentive for Public Engagement with Science. Whilst this is newly articulated in the mission statement of IFS and is a feature of the IFS 2011-2020 Strategy, it is not a new role for IFS, which in its small way, has championed public engagement for many years.

The history of advocacy of public engagement at IFS is highlighted by Sarah Palmer and Renato Schibeci, writing in Public Understanding of Science this summer, who examined the requirements of a range of science research funding bodies in this context. See abstract

This month, the Science and Development Network also takes up this issue in Siobhan Chan’s article Scientific research bodies 'failing to engage public' which highlights the opportunity for changes that this long running IFS policy exemplifies.

The Palmer and Schibeci (2012) study identifies a range of pioneering organisations which excel at the promotion of public engagement. These include much bigger players such as the Wellcome Trust, in the United Kingdom, the European Commission's FP7 (Seventh Framework Programme), and Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council. However, the study also identifies a spectrum of types of science communication, ranging from the ‘deficit model’, where scientists educate the public about their findings — to a more 'deliberative' approach, where the public set the research agenda and are involved throughout. Importantly, the authors find that the primary form of science communication, remains rather one directional where ‘experts’ inform ‘the public’.

Scientists have interesting knowledge to share. Equally important however, are the perspectives from non-science domains. These can include senses of ethics and morality, visions for society and future generations, drives to explore and explain the unknown, and realistic assessments of the challenges and solution that might be sought, and the context in which these are relevant or important to people. This exchange can help create well-informed, empowered scientists and a public who are better equipped to contribute together to our understanding of the world and to responsible, evidence-based decision making.

As individuals, communities, and societies, our understanding of, and response to, science are shaped by the cultures and contexts in which we live, work, and play. To address complex scientific questions and controversies that we now face, and to foster responsible and appropriate scientific knowledge production and decision making, it is vital that we create opportunities for an exchange of knowledge, ideas, and perspectives that involves the participation of the public, scientists, and decision makers. IFS is proud to build on its long running advocacy for Public Engagement in Science. We hope to continue in our small way to develop and articulate new understandings of, and expectations for, the relationship between science and the public in science agenda setting, policy making and other contexts relevant to early-career scientists.


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