Educate for the new reality, urges Oliver Escobar
The public engagement (PE) agenda is not exclusive to science and technology, but part of a broader political shift towards a more participatory democracy.
This shift is reshaping a range of policy arenas (for example, local governance, environment, planning, health) in a complex process of renegotiation of what it means to govern and be governed. For its supporters, this political project aims to counter the elitism of our policy-making cultures by experimenting with participatory innovations that might unlock the black boxes of our democracy.
A new ideological divide seems therefore to be emerging and cutting across traditional political silos (left, centre, right). Put simply, this divide separates those who favour elitist governance – policy made by the establishment – and those who support participatory governance: policy made through public dialogue and deliberation. The tensions animated by this evolving divide are embodied and negotiated in everyday PE practices.
From PR to dialogue
Science PE practitioners have traditionally drawn on public relations (PR) expertise to develop effective communication, crisis management, and media work. The job entails, as a colleague engager puts it, ‘selling the science’. This model of PE as PR suits well the traditional elitist and technocratic model of science and technology governance. In this model, the political work by PE practitioners is challenging but clear: constructing, educating and persuading publics, defending projects, protecting reputations, marketing artefacts, recruiting supporters, and celebrating science and technology. In sum, advocacy work.
Lately, however, the ground is shifting underneath the engagers. The proliferation of participatory processes has seen many practitioners navigating beyond the worlds of PE as PR and into the emerging territories of PE as public dialogue (PD). Here, their job entails a considerably different set of practices and skills. They must become facilitators of dialogue and deliberation, curators of processes where diverse voices are brought to bear on complex topics. In sum, dialogic work.
Advocacy vs mediation
Consequently, many practitioners face what I call the science communicator dilemma. In a nutshell, their traditional role doing advocacy work clashes with their new remit as dialogic practitioners. For example, it becomes self-defeating to publish a press release advocating a new technology, when later you must act as the neutral facilitator of an open dialogue that critically examines that very technology. In my view, it is unwise to advocate and mediate at the same time, and packing this double role into the job description of an increasing number of PE practitioners produces confusion.
Various actors and networks shape the PE agenda, but it is practitioners who negotiate its everyday tensions and practices on the ground. Engagers may not see themselves as political workers operating in political contexts, but as they embark on designing PE processes they make or implement choices that position their work on either side of the new ideological divide: PE as public relations, or PE as public dialogue.
Invisible and visible
When PE is done as PR, the engagers’ political work often seems invisible because their practices reproduce the status quo. When PE is done as public dialogue their political work becomes apparent: they construct and summon publics, mediate between conflicting views, bring the politics of expertise into the open (renegotiating hierarchies of knowledge), and face the tidal resistance of entrenched policy-making cultures.
This new role presents new challenges in terms of professional identity and development. We are very good at teaching PE as PR, but this bewilders and disempowers those practitioners who find themselves negotiating dialogic practices at the trenches of the new ideological divide. They might be better served by a practice-led education in political work, including facilitation and mediation skills, participatory methods, policy making know-how and knowledge brokerage. In sum, skills and tools to work the spaces of power.
Jerome Ravetz identifies a danger to public trust in science
For a long time it seemed that, in their relations with society, all that scientists had to do was to speak truth to power. Since the profession of science is based on mutual trust among researchers, there could be no question of the public’s trust in them being lost or threatened. There was a temporary crisis in the aftermath of the BSE scandal, since the public had been repeatedly assured of the safety of British beef by various eminent talking heads. But these were not leading researchers, and the threatened epidemic never materialised, so trust was soon restored.
Climate science has been a more testing experience. Convinced of the imminence of a very grave danger, scientists have needed to balance the requirements of effective public discourse with those of scientific caution.
Honest or effective?
The dilemma was stated eloquently by the eminent climate scientist, the late Steven Schneider. He drew attention, on the one hand, to scientists’ commitment to telling the truth, with its caveats. On the other hand, their desire to capture the public’s imagination for work to reduce the risk of climate change, means they need media coverage of their science. This, said Schneider, entails having to ‘offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.’1
This eloquent statement has a history of its own, for it was seized upon by skeptics as a defence of dishonest propaganda. Schneider met these criticisms with a reminder that he personally deplored the situation where scientists were under pressure to tell two sorts of story. But there is another dimension to the problem that Schneider seems not to have realised. I can call this ‘the Burns’s louse insight’. I refer to the last line of Burns’s poem to that creature, which he saw crawling about the bonnet of a very beautiful lady. He remarked,
‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us /To see oursels as ithers see us!’
Looking at Schneider’s statement of the dilemma, I suspect that he never considered what the public would think of a scientist who speaks with forked tongue. A good description of that role is provided by Roger Pielke Jr. in his book The Honest Broker.2 He analyses ‘the stealth advocate’, who adopts the mantle of scientific impartiality while pitching for a cause. All too often, the scientific stealth advocate doesn’t even have Steven Schneider’s degree of awareness, but sincerely believes that on his side there are no uncertainties or contradictions.
In jurisprudence there are well established rules of etiquette and ethics, whereby the one barrister can, with total integrity, plead for the prosecution one day, for the defence the next, and sit as a judge on the third. Issues of burden of proof and management of evidence are controlled by established rules.
Scientists have no such protection. Indeed, they are rendered more vulnerable to Schneider’s dilemma by an educational system that teaches by example that for every scientific problem there is just one (and only one) correct solution. Of course the practice of research shows otherwise; but that experience is not informed by any philosophical or pedagogical doctrine.
As a result, the temptations of oversimplification of complex and uncertain issues can result in scientists making pronouncements that are later shown to be wrong or ill-founded. Much more than open admissions of uncertainty or ignorance, these are a potent source of danger to public trust in science.
1 Stephen Schneider (1988) in an interview with Discover magazine
2 Roger Pielke (2008), The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge University Press