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Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

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1 How did the notion of public dialogue arise?

There is a good case to be made that the emphasis on ‘dialogue’ in relation to science and the public in the UK coincided with the publication in 2000 of the House of Lords report on Science and Society. But the impact of that report has to be seen in the context of what was happening under the ‘public understanding of science’ (PUS) banner in the years between the publication of the Bodmer report (1985) and the House of Lords report 15 years later.

In the UK, this period of time marked the hey-day of promotional events, many of which reflected Bodmer's stated ambition of raising the levels of ‘scientific literacy’ to ensure a public that was more supportive and appreciative of science. Nowadays that simplistic aim seems naive and inappropriate, given what is now known for example about how non-experts weigh the risks and benefits that science offers. Reading 1 is concerned with how an apparent transformation in attitude and in PUS intent came about over the 15 years or so in question.

Reading 1

Click to read Steve Miller's article on ‘Public understanding of science at the crossroads [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’. Some of the events he describes may be familiar, as should the work of influential researchers such as Brian Wynne and Alan Irwin. From your own experience, have you sensed that, in Miller's words, ‘a new age of public understanding of science’ has been entered?

Bodmer's deficit model approach, though now largely superseded, put particular emphasis on imparting science information to the public. Part of the reason this model was increasingly challenged was that no measurable increase in scientific literacy was evident from the post-1985 flurry of activity involving scientists talking to the public. Now, as the PUS pendulum swings more towards notions of dialogue and debate about science, questions that come to mind include, first, whether one-way deficit PUS is indeed a thing of the past (and if so, should it be?) and second, how dialogue with the public might be achieved and what is its purpose.