I participated today in a workshop on public engagement in science. The topic sounds cool, and when walking to the session, I was thinking in simple, idealistic terms. “Of course I am for public engagement! We should all be involved earlier in scientific questions! Think about the green economy, GM food, fracking!” These are some of the scientific challenges that impact our society at large, and communication in these areas has traditionally been a one-way road. There is a new trend towards a more participative society, and it surely would be great to have that in science too, right?
But my idealistic view was suddenly challenged when I was asked to reflect on what benefit public engagement could bring in my field. “My field? No, I work in stem cell research, and the public can be way too conservative about that.” I was experiencing, full on, the reason most scientists do not engage the public: fear of disapproval. I shared this with my work group and what followed was a beautiful discussion, step by step, on the added value of public engagement for researchers.
“Every scientist has doubts about the approach they are taking in their research. What about if you shared those doubts with the public?”, said one of my co-discussants. Somehow, that made sense. At many points in research, we wonder if the approach we are taking is the appropriate one to obtain the solution we are after. For those topics where the society has a keen interest in the way science develops (and there are many, from stem cells to nuclear power, genomics and waste recycling), could I not include the public as a source of inspiration? And who is to say that my individual solution would be smarter than that of a whole group of people?
Public engagement is more than one-way communication, and it is not about achieving acceptance for our research topic or approach. It is about opening up a dialogue with citizens and allowing them to be a part of the research process from the moment a project is designed to the moment the research results are disseminated. Allowing them, thus, to shape research into a direction they care about. Democratizing science. It is about building trust and respect – and that goes both ways. As scientists, we need to learn to trust the public to come up with smart solutions or highlight important aspects that we did not consider before.
Public engagement requires transparency; it requires access to data and publications. For it to work, it needs to be recognized, for example by being integrated into our funding system (e.g. as a requirement in grants). It requires a critical mass to start trying it out, so we can figure out if this idea works. There are already universities with a third mission including elements of public engagement (see here). And most importantly, building trust requires time.
As researchers, we might start slowly recognizing the benefits of public engagement. But it also bears risks, and we shouldn’t view the public through rose-colored glasses. As one participant put it: “Bad public engagement is worse than no public engagement”. So there seems to be a need for training in this area (everyone in the room nodded frantically when this question was asked). Yet, another participant had words of caution on this: “I am concerned that this will result in professional science marketers walking around”. The line between PR and public engagement can be thin – each one of us belongs to at least one interest group, and as researchers we can be very passionate about our topics. So when you strongly believe in something, where does engagement stop and PR start?
The session was organized by the Directorate General for Responsible Research and Innovation of the European Commission. The talented illustrators Jeraldene Lovell-Cole and Clive V. Cole did some live graphic capture of the session.
These are some introductory thoughts from the heads of each work-group (each of them work in an EU project on public engagement):
Here are the questions we worked on and some of the highlighted answers:
The end of the session was a "popcorn" event. Everyone could stand up and speak for 3-5 seconds on one idea they thought was important (like hot popcorn popping on the stove). It was quite amazing to see how nicely the format worked to set up a discussion among all participants!
PS: All of the ideas above are not my smart ideas, but were put together through a collaborative effort by everyone at the session, as you can see in the panels.