Public engagement should make space for chaos, argues Alan Irwin
Public engagement exercises can take many forms and they certainly cover many different issues. But one thing they all seem to have in common is a nicely-presented final report. You know the kind of thing: aims and objectives, a few paragraphs on methodology, and then a series of key findings and conclusions. If the budget allows, there will also be some images to represent whatever was the focus of the dialogue (fields of corn, nanotubes, perhaps an artfully-photographed stem cell).
Nobody can deny that a lot of work goes into these documents, checking that the whole thing is as clear to read as possible. Public dialogue is becoming more professional and everyone understands that practitioners need to be good communicators themselves. So what could be wrong with that?
A recent article  by Maja Horst and Mike Michael got me thinking about these reports and why they were troubling me. Horst designed an installation dealing with public expectations towards emerging technologies, and placed it in a Copenhagen shopping centre. I visited and found it sitting, TARDIS-like, outside the usual assortment of modern stores.
The issue they developed in their paper was that not all those encountering the installation followed what we might call the ‘rules of engagement’. I’m sure many people got involved in the serious issues of ethics, public choice and hopes for the future of science and technology. But some of them were just having fun. They used the installation’s cameras to entertain their friends; they wrote some silly things instead of recording their views about science and the future; they gently subverted the registry of votes on different issues. They were reacting in ignorance of the rules meant to govern the situation.
What are we to make of this? Of course, deficit theorists could have a field day. Haven’t we been told all along that the public are uninformed, ignorant and irrational?
In my own experience of focus group work, I’ve had one person turn up drunk, at least one other fall asleep, and I recall one session where participants spent most of their time making abusive remarks about my home town. I’ve often had participants go off track, talking passionately about vandalism, unemployment and (yes) the state of the neighbourhood wheelie-bins.
Of course, the more structured the exercise, the less opportunity there is for these digressions and subversions. A Saturday morning shopping centre is not the same as a scientific conference. The closer one gets to real life the more noise, distraction and general chaos there is. And that is exactly my point.
I know very well that usually there is a serious purpose (and a serious sponsor) behind engagement exercises and that findings need to be communicated clearly. And I am certainly not suggesting that public responses are only frivolous and off-track. Again and again, I have encountered serious reflections and sharp insights among the so-called ‘non-expert’ publics.
My argument instead is that we have to be very careful not to sanitize our reports to such an extent that the noise, distraction and chaos get taken out and a misleading sense of dispassionate calm and passivity prevails.
The lesson I draw from Horst and Michael is not that unexpected behaviour should be dismissed, but that science engagement is just one aspect of everyday life – and not necessarily (whatever we might think) the most important. So amidst the methodology sections and the executive summaries, the demographic variables and the tasteful nanotubes, let us also have some noise, provocation and sheer awkwardness. And, who knows, we could even have some fun too.