5 Public learning agendas
So far, this course has argued that public engagement with science can be through both institutionalised events and independent contributions – hopefully, something for everyone. But to what extent will this be a consistent move towards dialogue and understanding, as requested by the UK and EU policies mentioned in Section 2?
Reading 2 suggests a move towards genuine interaction is possible if there is enough political motivation to enhance community learning of science and technology – referred to as ‘public learning agendas’. Reading 1 (the Pro-Am paper) essentially looked at the local level. Reading 2 moves up to the ‘national’ level, arguing that if the political impetus is there, then it is possible for public learning agendas to be redefined to encompass lay knowledge and interests. Interestingly, although the paper is by two Australian authors and makes some reference to that context, it is still markedly international, citing sources and scenarios from the UK and elsewhere with which you may be familiar. This suggests that there are themes and lessons to be drawn from cross-cultural comparisons and conversations: science promotion is not necessarily a single nation's endeavour.
Read, ‘The communication of science and technology: past, present and future agendas’ by Leonie Rennie and Susan Stocklmayer (2003). This paper has two uses for you. The first half of the paper is a valuable overview of how science is promoted in formal institutions such as science centres and museums – an aspect that is related to this course but purposely not covered by it. The second half of the paper – page 765 onwards – offers a conceptual discussion on some of the issues that we have covered about the role of science promotion within the political mandate for PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology). The authors argue that both scientists and the public should contribute fully to the science–policy domain, but they raise the question of how this might be achieved.
The authors argue that:
idea of ‘engagement’ still seems to place responsibility on the public to make the overtures to learn more about science and technology.
Our view is that the notion of ‘science and technology’s engagement with the public’ may better represent the way forward.
(Rennie and Stocklmayer, 2003, p. 768)
Yet two pages later, they note that:
If there is important knowledge to be shared, such as the need for immunisation of children, how do we set about making it known in the wider community?
(Rennie and Stocklmayer, 2003, p. 770)
Once again, the tension emerges between intention and achievement, or whether practice reflects purpose. Should a distinction be made between science that has to be transmitted to the public, and science that can be left open to discovery, if the motivation exists? Who would decide which was which?
Rennie and Stocklmayer (2003) thus reflect an idea expressed at the start of this course – that there is fluidity between formal and informal objectives in science promotion. It raises the issue of which science is actively promoted by these events and which science is left out. At least two scenarios might arise from this, both of which were mentioned in Section 2 of this course. One scenario is that political imperatives determine priorities in science promotion events, with dialogue about controversial science marginalised in favour of exhibitions about acceptable ‘science in general’. The other scenario, highlighted by the House of Lords quotation in Section 2, is that the public only get to debate controversial issues. Rennie and Stocklmayer try to address this lack of clarity by asking (but unfortunately not answering) a similar question on page 768, ‘Should we concentrate on science as process, science as history, science as uncertainty?’ What is your opinion?
Furthermore, on page 767, Rennie and Stocklmayer report that ‘it is a common view among scientists, particularly older ones, that responsibility rests with the public to learn more science.’ This echoes the deficit approach to science–society relations, and of the early ‘public understanding of science’ (PUS) programmes with their remit to educate the public (compared to recent requirements for some kind of public engagement activity as a condition of grant awards).
But here emerges another question – one that perhaps has no fixed answer. Do these scientists have a point that it is the public's responsibility to increase their knowledge if they want to engage in current science–policy debates? Arguably, the answer to this question depends on context. It would be hard to have a progressive and fruitful debate if participants are unwilling to learn about the other perspectives being presented (the scientific realm has been critised for not engaging with social or ethical issues; it is equally valid to be concerned if public participants refuse to engage with technical issues). Yet, seeing science only as a way of allowing people to address specific questions could lead to an overly utilitarian approach to science promotion; there is not much scope for encouraging eudaimonia or enlightened dialogic citizenship if this were the case. The next section tries to look at the future of science promotion and to evaluate how it might herald a genuine move towards interactive dialogue and understanding on local, national and international levels.