Engaging the public: lessons from history

3 April 2019

As Enrique Mendizabal says, think tanks and experts have all too often side-stepped the public and worked with politicians and bureaucrats, often behind closed doors. Recent events have called into question experts’ claims and credibility. They are subsequently having to turn their attention to the public. But this isn’t the first time experts have been under pressure to engage with a wider audience.

In the UK and other Northern contexts, discussions about the democratisation of science and how/why citizens engage in scientific debates have raged for decades. Tensions and controversies from the 1990s onwards surrounding issues such as genetically modified (GM) crops, so-called Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE), Foot and Mouth Disease, the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and Climategate all shook public trust in the scientific establishment. This led to an increase in participatory, deliberative, inclusionary engagement processes in issues involving science and technology (S&T).

And in the development sector, perceived failures of state led, top-down development primarily in the South led to claims – in the 1980s – that development experts and state officials were too remote from, and unresponsive to, the concerns and priorities of ordinary people, especially the poor. This led to calls for innovative ‘bottom up’ approaches. Rhetoric (if not practice) subsequently saw a move away from expert led programmes toward greater citizen involvement and an appreciation of indigenous and community knowledge (in parallel to the rise of free market economics), mainly in a Southern context.

So, what lessons can think tanks learn from these histories? Drawing on a review of public engagement work for the Wellcome Trust, I raise three key questions for think tanks to ponder.

1. Who are the public and how are they expected to engage?

Mainstream approaches to citizen involvement especially with science and technology have assumed the public are passive individuals engaging in forums organised by benevolent scientific institutions to choose among an array of options and services (as ‘users’ and ‘choosers’). In this perspective they tend not to play a major role in setting policy and technology development agendas.

This is in contrast to approaches which assume the public are social and are part of groups and communities that coalesce around particular issues. The public are participants in community development processes – the lifeblood of many development NGOs.

Bridging these two approaches is one that situates individuals as part of collectives who engage directly in deliberative (and political) discussions to actively ‘make and shape’ agendas, but also defer to state officials and experts to make decisions on their behalf.

But the public are not one homogenous entity: they are heterogeneous with different identities which shapes their capacity to engage. For instance, development processes in relation to say, water, forests or genetic resources, have tended to be biased towards the interests of certain groups such as men, urban industrial elites and corporate capital.

2. What can the public contribute?

In 1970s Britain, perceived crises of legitimacy in science among publics were deemed to be the result of public misunderstanding of science, a ‘deficit’ in public knowledge that needed to be filled through science education. The scientific establishment believed the public had little to offer them.

However, since then, commentators have acknowledged that public understandings of science are more sophisticated and nuanced than they had been given credit for. Non-elites, such as farmers, patients and consumers have increasingly mobilised to contest the power given to scientists and their advice. But they have also added new perspectives by collecting information and producing their own knowledge.

In the North, groups such as HIV and AIDS activists, toxic waste campaigners and those campaigning for the removal of phthalates from plastic bottles, made claims through the production of citizen science. In the UK, the public were invited to become members of Science Advisory Councils – the high-level bodies advising government departments on science issues – suggesting experts could be both specialists and non-specialists.

In the development sector, groups such as the Zapatista movement representing indigenous people in Chiapas, the Narmada Valley anti-dam movement, the anti-war movement and the World Social Forum have taken actions drawing primarily on experiential knowledge. Farmer-to-farmer science learning in the ‘Campesino a Campesino’ movement in Latin America, for example, saw farmers throughout southern Mexico and Central America over three decades teach one another about how to protect their environment while still earning a living – through experimentation, piloting and testing.

Publics, whether rural farmers in Africa or users of health services in the UK, have been acknowledged as having not just other bodies of knowledge, but also other ways of knowing, which differ from western science. These include astrology, homeopathy, theology and other ‘folk knowledges’, whose concepts and practices are different to those of Western science but can offer important perspectives to debates about science and policy.

Experts can gain legitimacy only if they learn to acknowledge, respect, negotiate with and accommodate these other ways of knowing into their arguments, rather than readily dismiss them as the effects of ignorance and misunderstanding which ought to be managed through more information, education and communication. The production of science is just as much a social and political activity as the production of local and experiential knowledge.

3. How are public engagement dialogues organised and framed?

Public engagement events have often been led or convened by agencies which have controlled how problems and questions are posed and how arguments are made, often drawing on dominant mainstream approaches. Citizens are therefore invited to engage with institutionally pre-defined agendas which presents ‘science’ or development issues in a particular way.

In relation to S&T, institutions have been concerned with narrow technical questions often in relation to risk: for instance, do the public perceive some technology to be safe enough or not? This has helped scientific institutions reduce the chances of things going wrong or gauge the likelihood of adverse public responses. Information gathered during public dialogues have helped with the presentation and delivery of pre-designed policies. Organisers subsequently see their main task as educating and communicating those risks and ways in which they can be reduced. The management of risk has helped to legitimise powerful institutions – a strategy which goes back to colonial times.

In the UK public controversy over genetically modified (GM) crops and foods was defined primarily as an issue of risk. The public were responsible for identifying and managing risks through their actions in the marketplace (well ‘downstream’) through the purchase of GM foods (or not). Public opposition was seen as anti-science or misunderstanding science. Similarly Emma Broadbent describes how the Zambian government chose to reject 35,000 tonnes of food aid from the US because it included GMO maize – a move criticised by international agencies for defying the ‘evidence’ and endangering the lives of starving people.

Citizens around the world have taken action and mobilised around the broader political, ethical and cultural dimensions of GM technology and what it implies for the future of society – an issue which had fallen on deaf ears within science and policy institutions.

In conclusion, public engagement processes are vulnerable to framing by the most powerful and can actually discipline its participants and close down participation. Dialogues have rarely engaged with ‘front end’ questions about the setting of science and technology agendas, about the process of innovation and whose priorities or visions of development or the good society these were to address. Genuine public engagement requires think tanks to move beyond a focus on techniques and procedures to embrace a more political analysis of the issue in hand – to include issues of agency, power and accountability. As Robert Chambers asks, ‘Whose reality counts?