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Hidden benefits of public participation

We should recognise them, say Edward Andersson and Karin Gavelin

Debates about the value of public engagement in science tend to centre around what it adds to science and science policy. We believe that policy impact is only half the story. There are many other, indirect benefits of public engagement that tend to go unnoticed because people do not know to look out for them.

The less tangible impacts of public engagement activities affect government, the science community and wider society. In particular, it affects people. 

Impacts on individuals

Involve’s research has repeatedly shown that public engagement can have a profound effect on the individuals involved, be they decision-makers, public participants or ‘experts’.1 The simple act of scientists, civil servants and members of the public sitting down to a face-to-face discussion challenged the preconceptions these people had about each other and about the role that science plays in society.

The experience gave many public participants a new outlook on science, a new appreciation of scientists and their work and, for some, new confidence to take part in public debates. For many scientists, hearing the public participants’ questions and insights gave them a new perspective on their work and prompted reflections on their social responsibilities as scientists. As one scientist said: ‘[the public participants] had ideas and concerns that I had never thought of before.’

Changing specific cultures

These impacts are limited in that they only affect the people directly involved. But they do have a role to play in changing the culture of science and policy communities.

As more and more scientists and civil servants gain personal experiences of public dialogue, these activities contribute to bringing about a wider shift in how the social dimensions of science and technology are addressed. This change is evident in how social and environmental considerations now take centre stage in discussions about new science and technology, and in how public engagement has gone from being a niche pursuit to become a core element of science governance, championed by government, research councils and the royal societies alike.

Benefit for communities

Apart from these benefits for science, Involve has found that these activities can also have positive impacts for communities and citizens more generally. We have seen citizens involved becoming more scientifically aware and more interested in taking part in discussions about science and public policy elsewhere, as these quotes illustrate: ‘I learnt to be more tolerant of other people.  To research more on the internet. To be more aware of the environment.’ ‘I would love to get involved more. Everybody has a brain, everybody can utilise it, therefore everybody should have a voice.’

Good public dialogue can give participants new knowledge and skills and enable them to form opinions about complex science and policy issues. Ten out of eleven participants we interviewed said that they would want to get involved in a similar project again, given the chance.

Building communities

These ‘second order’ impacts of public engagement are increasingly noticed and emphasised by commentators and policy makers alike. 

Lessons from outside of the science engagement field2 show that one of the most effective ways of building positive relationships between people is to motivate and enable them to come together to address shared problems and build on what they have in common. Community relations benefit from people being encouraged to take part in public life within their local area, and there is no reason why this should not also be the case for public engagement in science.

Better recognition of second-order impacts could help scientists and policy makers appreciate the indirect and long-term benefits of their public engagement activities. It is time to broaden the scope of the impacts we are looking for.

1 Involve (2007) Democratic Technologies?; Involve (2007) Engage for Change: the role of public engagement in climate change policy. Involve (2008) Everybody Needs Good Neighbours? A study of the link between public participation and community cohesion

2 Involve (2008) Everybody Needs Good Neighbours?

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Edward Andersson
Edward Andersson is at Involve, the Participation Organisation
Karin Gavelin
Karin Gavelin is at Involve, the Participation Organisation
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