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20/12/2014

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Encouraging the public to speak

Pippa Goldschmidt listens to planners

Wendy Sarkissian and Dianna Hurford (2010), Creative Community Planning: Transformative Engagement Methods for Working at the Edge Earthscan  IBSN 9781844077038 (Paperback)

‘Science and the public’ and ‘public understanding of science’ are well meaning phrases but imply that the concept of ‘science’ is inherently opposed to that of the ‘public’ and perhaps help to maintain the very barriers they seek to bring down. So, it may be worth looking at other disciplines to learn about more innovative and inclusive ways of engaging.

That’s where this book could be useful. It describes a variety of methods, developed and used in Australia and Canada, to help local communities become fully involved in planning processes and ensure that their voices are heard amongst those of the experts.

Encouraging engagement

The fun thing is that the book practises what it preaches. It’s immediately accessible in both its visual layout and text. And despite being written by planners and academics, very little is actually written in academic language.

One of the authors, Dianna Hurford, is also a poet and examples of her work are sprinkled throughout the book. Most of the chapters take the form of dialogues between practitioners. Each chapter begins with an invitation to the reader which is written in active verbs – an effective way of making the reader feel like a participant in the text.

Many of the methods of engagement presented here rely on creative activities. Children are invited to take photographs of the aspects of their environment that they value. Young people make a video. People are encouraged to be silent together, to visualise their ideal environment before sharing their thoughts. There is a gentle insistence throughout the book that these unorthodox methods help foster feelings of trust and empathy between participants at planning meetings where local communities, often with good reason, can feel ignored.

Science through fiction

And actually, some of the creative activities described in the book aren’t totally foreign to science engagement. Ballet Rambert has been devising productions about Darwinian evolution and Einstein. Dark Matter is a recent anthology of poetry about astronomy published by the Gulbenkian Foundation, for which poets were paired up with astronomers. But writing poetry isn’t just for poets. One chapter in this book provides a whole host of reasons why writing poetry can be a powerful way of helping people to ‘notice with intensity’ their environment.

During my stint as writer-in-resident at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, I’ve been running creative writing workshops for both academics and students, during which we’ve looked at how fiction can explore science through both reading existing texts and writing our own. The initial anxiety that workshop participants feel when asked to write a story or poem always fades away when they realise they can do it, and it’s an enjoyable process.

Exploit the web

But the book has surprisingly little to say on some crucial aspects of engagement. Apart from a brief discussion of the use of websites to collect and display information, the communities described are assumed to be physically co-located and engagement with them is always face-to-face. But our ability to go online and create new communities, regardless of their physical location, has transformed the way we see ourselves and our world. Perhaps local planning can get away with just using the internet as the electronic version of the village notice board, but science communication must recognise and exploit its full capability.

So, is the book relevant to science engagement? It should be. Encouraging the public to speak, rather than be spoken to, may smooth out some of the inherent imbalance between the experts and the non-experts that exists in discussions of science and related policy. This book will find a place on my shelf and I’m sure I’ll be referring to it in the future.

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Pippa Goldschmidt
Pippa Goldschmidt is a writer in residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, based at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in using fiction to explore and comumunicate science.
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