Science promotion
Science promotion

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Science promotion

4 D-I-Y science: independently engaging with science

It could be argued that relying on institutional science promotion events might overlook a subtle, but equally important means of people engaging with science: when science is accessed on an informal, independent or non-institutional basis (previously referred to as a do-it-yourself style of science promotion). Rather than seeing this as an anarchistic rejection of formal initiatives (although this might occasionally be the case), it could indicate an extra measure of commitment on behalf of the individual. Not just turning up at an exhibition, for example, but keeping an identifiable momentum to improve one’s own knowledge and involvement, takes dedication.

This kind of independent but deep-rooted engagement with science is well established, and certainly pre-dates the PUS (Public Understanding of Science) movement. There is an honorable tradition in the UK of highly involved amateurs, from the naturalists and museum curators of Victorian times to the first computing enthusiasts who built machines at home in the 1970s. Yet it is only now that their contribution is being articulated in the wider political realm. According to Leadbeater and Miller (2004) (see Reading 1 below), there are at least 4500 independent archaeologists in the UK (not counting people who occasionally use metal detectors), 100 000 amateurs actively involved in nature conservation, over one million members of wildlife groups and more than two million active gardeners – a numerable group of ‘informal scientists’, for sure.

Activity 1

Read Reading 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , an extract from ‘The Pro-Am Revolution: how enthusiasts are changing our economy and society’ by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller (2004). The report, commissioned for the economic think-tank DEMOS, explores the phenomenon of ‘Pro-Ams’ – committed amateurs who attain a professional level of expertise through their passion and perseverance.

By highlighting the personal and civic value of the efforts of people such as birdwatchers, amateur astronomers and computer programmers, Leadbeater and Miller argue that encouraging Pro-Ams in society will lead to more innovation and a healthier democracy. Do the authors suggest the contribution by Pro-Ams to scientific progress can be across the board, or might it be limited in some types of science (high-tech science, for example)?

Taking this a step further, do Leadbeater and Miller imply that ‘expert knowledge’ – presumably the knowledge that emanates from a professional person or institution – makes a definable and distinct contribution to social phenomena like innovation and democracy? And how might people best engage with this ‘expert knowledge’ – is it via organised science promotion events? ‘Independent’ does not necessarily mean solo – although some Pro-Ams do work entirely alone, Leadbeater and Miller claim that most do not. Like scientists working in institutions, many Pro Ams want to spread their message and share their knowledge, but they do this through autonomous clubs, magazines, networks and digital technologies rather than through organised public events. The deduction is that Pro-Ams do not necessarily need institutional science outreach events in order to engage with science.

The realisation that members of the public can educate and empower themselves in a realm that, historically, has been populated by an intellectual ‘elite’ gives substance to several ideas. First, it reminds us that science–public relations can evolve to become more dialogic and mutually supportive, as suggested by David Layton’s ‘Interactive Model’ and Alan Irwin’s ‘Democracy Model’ of communication. Secondly, it reflects claims that lay people can be highly adept at seeking out and using scientific information when they want to or need to – claims made in the course material by, for example, Irwin and Wynne (1996) and Edgar Jenkins (1997). Thirdly, it opens up the question about what constitutes an ‘expert’ and the role they should play in public policy decisions.

But is the knowledge, experience and social cohesion of Pro-Ams a valid contribution towards science promotion in the UK, or should there be some level of established professional review, so that the public are given only facts and theories that are widely accepted? This is not just a theoretical riddle. If the argument, made in Reading 1, that Pro-Ams are a key part of the country's scientific knowledge base is accepted, perhaps they should be invited to contribute openly to a national science promotion drive. Yet whilst the Pro-Am story may be inspiring, it is not clear how viable this contribution would be.

Clearly, Leadbeater and Miller support the idea of ‘Pro-Ams’, and see their value as autonomous individuals/collectives and as partners in networked teams made up of professionals and amateurs. Indeed, it will often be the case that there is no neat separation between the two when it comes to review and promulgation of findings and recommendations. This raises the issue of complementarity, and how it might be best achieved. It may be that the fundamental assumptions and established agendas within the PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology) movement need to evolve. This is the subject of the next section.

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