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Enlightenment and hand-wringing

Alice Bell takes stock of public engagement

Janus Hansen, (2010), Biotechnology and Public Engagement in Europe (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan) ISBN: 9780230242128

Public engagement with science and technology (PEST) is, in many ways, a movement of hope. Reading early calls for PEST written in the later decades of the 20th century, there can be something of the manifesto about them, perhaps because of the ways in which they often critiqued other models for science in society too. Since then, we have seen a formalisation of the various ideas and ideals of PEST, even into forms of science policy systems. Many people have even started to think in terms of a narrative arch shifting from old-fashioned top-down, to greater and greater levels of dialogic depth, towards a sort of PEST enlightenment.

Janus Hansen’s new book, Biotechnology and Public Engagement in Europe,

is a study – and a summation of other studies – reflecting upon the growth of this movement. What is more, he aims to ask questions of what it can realistically achieve.

The discourse of public engagement

Hansen’s book takes the social studies thesis model of extensive literature review, thematic analysis and conclusion. This has advantages for the general reader, as literature reviews provide an up-to-date and thoughtful synthesis of work on an issue. In particular, one of the introductory chapters on the ‘discourse of public engagement’ provides a useful run through of work on this field.

As Hansen notes, talk about public engagement tends to reflect what should be, not is. To this discourse of publics, science and its governance, he tries to take the pragmatic attitude of a sociologist to consider how realistic the aims of such work actually are. He punctuates the simple hope with a bit of sociological pragmatism. The result is a mature approach to the ongoing diversity of cultures of engagement (and their challenges) across Europe, working up detailed case studies from Denmark, the UK and Germany, and noting different problems in each. Considering the field as a whole, he also notes that none of the three cases settled the controversy they considered. As I’m sure many engagement professionals will recognise, Hansen further stresses that engagement tended to happen at some distance to policy makers, and was often ignored by them.

Get convincing

In the end, I couldn’t help but feel this was a very old story of academics failing to communicate effectively with people who aren’t already their friends. By academics, I don’t mean those in the natural sciences; I mean sociologists and geographers who sit at centre of the principles of PEST. And so I wonder if the time for wordy sociology is over.

Much as I personally enjoy it, to be ‘realistic’ in practice, PEST needs to get out of those bubbles. Wynne, Irwin et al made the key points decades ago. If we truly believe the ideals of PEST, we need to get convincing. It’s been neatly translated from sociology-speak in the Lords report and a great series of Demos pamphlets, but clearly that’s not enough.

Get listening

Moreover, the advocates of PEST should practise what they preach, and get listening. They should be listening to those policy makers, scientists, industrialists and publics they hope to help connect through PEST work. Not only listening rhetorically, but really listening. To see why so many continue to misunderstand (sometimes wilfully misrepresent) the vision of PEST, disregard it, disagree with it, not notice it, or simply have their own ideas.

To end on a hopeful note: this is not an original argument. I know others see it too. 2010 was a year full of hand-wringing over how little had changed since the 2000 Lords report, let alone the 1985 Bodmer report. I for one am looking forward to the hand-wringing in 2031 (bicentenary of the founding of the British Science Association).

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Dr Alice Bell is senior teaching fellow in science communication at Imperial College, London




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Dr Alice Bell
Dr Alice Bell is senior teaching fellow in science communication at Imperial College, London
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