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19/12/2014

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EU strategy to engage the public in science

Julia Garritt wonders whether we can gauge its success

Science-society relationships frequently go beyond national boundaries, for example the demands to combat global warming and the international career opportunities for those working in science.

Reflecting this, the EU published its first Science and Society Action Plan (SASAP) in 2002. It was a strategy for Member States to promote science-public relations by encouraging research activities and institutional mechanisms for science education, communication and outreach. It also reflected a shift from the idea of Public Understanding of Science (PUS) to Public Engagement with Science & Technology (PEST).

As we approach 2010 – the date set by the Lisbon Council for the EU to be the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world - it seems worth asking whether an international strategy like SASAP can influence the nationally- and culturally-specific character of PEST programmes. If it can, how might its influence and success be measured and evaluated?  

The following factors might frustrate the SASAP’s aspirations.

Information and power

Firstly, the SASAP needs to apply in many different national contexts – currently 27 different countries and 500 million people. The national socio-cultural influences that act on scientists and science institutions are well researched in academic circles, but less clear is how these influences shape public engagement.

For example, if the aim is to increase public awareness of and involvement in science within society, then it is a political programme (albeit with a small ‘p’) which requires political currency at the national level.

This might influence what is available at organised PEST events, with some ideas conveyed at the expense of others. If these events communicate only established conventions, theories and procedures then this information could be seen as implicitly privileged and powerful over alternative messages and views.

Defining public engagement

The second difficulty is the myriad definitions and understandings of what public engagement is. It can mean access, engagement, outreach, education, linear communication, dialogue, institutions, groups and individuals – or some, all or none of these.

Many countries have a long tradition of ‘amateur’ individuals engaging with science – from naturalists to archaeologists to computing enthusiasts – and their collective effort is an essential part of an informed civil society. Yet this phenomenon makes it hard to know which outcomes of the SASAP (or any engagement activity) we should identify and measure. Is it possible to measure science-public relations when the line between expert and amateur is blurred?

Measuring scientific literacy

The last difficulty for the SASAP arises from the bureaucratic desire to measure scientific literacy.

Academic research has repeatedly shown this is hard to define and measure. Quantitative ‘yes or no’ questions are more likely to reveal the ability to memorise facts rather than understand processes, and don’t necessarily reflect a person’s skills in understanding scientific information that is of particular use to them. Importantly for the SASAP’s political context, current measures of scientific literacy don’t prove that it is linked to the ability to make a broad, sustainable contribution to the EU’s economic and civic prosperity. 

In sum, we need a sensitive approach to measuring the success of the SASAP. The two EC-endorsed assessments of Plan thus far1 both note its lack of measurable indicators. We need indicators that are sufficiently broad and sophisticated to demonstrate whether, and how, the EU strategy to engage the public in science has made a difference to improving science-public relations.

Yet we might also have to accept that not everything fits into boxes:  the Ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia or human flourishing also applies to public engagement in science, and perhaps we simply cannot measure that.

1 The 2005 Evaluation Report by The Evaluation Partnership Ltd is available at http://tinyurl.com/kr29vk and the 2007 Mid-Term Assessment commissioned by the EC are available at http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/document_library

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Julia Garritt
Julia Garritt is Associate Lecturer, Open University MSc in Science Programme, and Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College UHI
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