Science and Public Participation

Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Fischer’s Citizens, Experts, and the Environment (2001), said that wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government. But, nowadays, who can claim to be well informed enough about science to govern it except the scientists themselves? In 1959, Sir Charles Snow put forward the thesis in the Rede Lecture that there was what amounted to an opposition between literary intellectualism at one end, and proficiency in the physical sciences at the other. Snow dated his realization of this distinction to the 1930s. What we can say for certain is that there was a coming into common understanding that a reasonably well educated or cultured person could not, now, be expected to be normally able to comprehend both the sciences and the arts. This state of affairs is not by any means all the scientific community’s fault, although science is guilty of creating, along with other forms of knowledge and understanding, elites. Elitism fosters disciplinization and subdisciplinization, and has given rise to mistrust and lack of understanding between the members of different disciplines and of science and scientists in general. The term “lay” was commonly used until the 1990s to describe those untutored in science, thus emphasizing the idea of a scientific priesthood or elite. For various reasons not dealt with here, this state of affairs is seen as being iniquitous, and so public participation in science, also known as public engagement in science, is seen as a means whereby that balance can be redressed.

This broad generalization of why science “needs” to be democratized hides several distinct rationales as to why the public should engage with science or vice versa. Before dealing with these rationales, there is one distinction that needs to be introduced: who or what ”the public” or ”publics” are engaging in or with. In many ”western style” democracies, members of the public are engaging and being engaged in the governance of science, but not in knowledge creation itself. In contrast, in some continental European countries and in a few developing countries, citizen participation in science is seeing citizens more as co creators of new knowledge alongside traditional experts, new knowledge that is both ”reliable” (after Gibbons 1999 – i.e., knowledge that is scientifically correct) and also ”socially robust” (i.e., that overcomes the elitism of traditionally generated scientific knowledge). These two major dimensions to public engagement may be distinguished as public engagement with science on the one hand, and public engagement in science on the other. Stirling (2005) characterizes the first more exactly as ”participation in the social appraisal of science and technology,” while the other is also about knowledge production, as is illustrated by the title of the book The New Production of Knowledge published in 1994 by an international team of scholars including Michael Gibbons and Peter Scott from the UK, Camille Limoges, Simon Schwartzmann, and Martin Trow from the Americas, and Helga Nowotny from continental Europe.

Since the end of World War II, there has been an almost logarithmic increase in the number of initiatives to open up new spaces for science and the public to interact. In 1985 in the UK, the Bodmer Report (see Miller 2001 for a fuller history) introduced the phrase ”the Public Understanding of Science” (PUS) into the English language and also the idea that the public suffered from a deficit of knowledge about science. This thesis – that if only the public knew more about science and how it worked then they would be happier to allow science more funding, more control over science to scientists, and so on – can be seen to fit firmly into the dimension of public engagement with science. In the US during this period, science and scientists were engaged in a much more polarized debate sometimes referred to as the Science Wars (see Rose 1997), where the scientific elite defended itself against all critiques which it characterized as ”anti science.” The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) often found itself on the receiving end of attacks and rebuttals, particularly for its social constructionist stance. Yet, in the US, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has, over the years, had little more effect in generating public engagement in or with science than has its UK counterpart(s): the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, who jointly formed the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (CoPUS) after the Bodmer Report. The deficit model informed much of the early work of CoPUS and the AAAS. The deficit model, and projects based upon it, proved powerless to assist in improving science literacy.

SSK really did not engage with PUS as the former’s social constructionist thesis suggested that increasing scientific literacy was not going to serve any useful purpose except to science itself. UK SSK practitioners (see Irwin & Wynne 1996 for one collection of their works) were suggesting that science needed to be, at the very least, studied in context. Still using the terminology of elites, they made the argument that ”lay knowledge” should be considered alongside expert knowledge as epistemologically different but no less valid. The deficit model was moribund. However, the application of social constructionist ideas needs to be handled carefully, as while the governance and application of science – what Stirling called science’s ”social appraisal” – is clearly open to public engagement and participation, the inclusion of the public’s (and publics’) knowledge in the creation of ”new knowledge” is still a largely uncharted territory. Nonetheless, we have now moved from PUS to PEST (Public Engagement with Science and Technology), and PEST seems to be able to attract the interest of SSK practitioners and scientists alike. The UK Economic and Social Research Council has its Science in Society program, as does the Royal Society, CoPUS is to be reformed and renamed, and the influential House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report (2000) was entitled Science and Society. With the change from PUS to PEST, the mood has changed from edification to dialogue. Science is now expected to seek to democratize itself through engagement. The form that this engagement takes is still largely undecided.

In the last decade, many rationales have emerged for encouraging public participation, particularly with environmental policymaking spurs such as global climate change and, in particular, sustainable development (see Forrester 1999). Some have adopted the pragmatic argument that public involvement will assist with the effective implementation of policy; when members of the public are consulted and engaged with, they are more likely to lend their support to (or, at least, not oppose) science based policy measures. Others have argued that in democratic societies, people simply have a right to a participatory role. Further, the argument has been made that people may have access to knowledge that is unknown to experts; local people may themselves count as experts about their own localities. Such participative initiatives have been further spurred and legitimated by the participatory emphasis within Local Agenda 21. This was important in that it encouraged people to participate in the issues affecting their localities. Stirling (2005) has characterized these three rationales as:

  • Normative democratic – in other words, the motive is the engagement. It is simply people’s democratic right to be involved in decision making in society and in an increasingly technocratic society this involves increased involvement in science policy.
  • Instrumental – this rationale is different in that it has a purpose related to an output or outcome. Citizens are engaged in order to change their behavior, or to inform the creation of new knowledge. PUS was clearly instrumental.
  • Substantive – this is the most complex in that this rationale almost subsumes the other two, but at its most naive it can be described that substantive engagement leads to a “better” decision. In can be argued that the move toward PEST sets the scene for substantive engagement to occur.

There will remain times when the public will be engaged “only” in the governance of science; engaged in making decisions about science funding, research priorities, and so on. There will also be times when what is required is engagement in the creation of new knowledge. The major methodological issues with science governance include: redefining the “norms” of science (after Merton’s 1973 The Sociology of Science), deciding on the funding of science, the transparency of decision making within the governance of science and science research, and also the application of scientific knowledge (see Ziman 1996). Thus, this level of engagement concentrates upon science itself, its outworkings in the policy sphere. The major methodological concepts or issues involved in public engagement in the creation of [new] knowledge are to do with the nature of that knowledge itself -what the concept’s authors call ”mode 2 knowledge production” (Nowotny et al. 2001) – and where and how the conditions necessary for the growth of a ”socially distributed expertise” (ibid.) may be fostered.

As science becomes increasingly answerable to a range of publics including both funders and users, sociology has begun to suggest that ”new spaces” are needed to fulfill a new contractual arrangement between science and its primary constituency, society. Policymakers (see House of Lords Science and Society referred to above) warn against creating new institutions to provide these spaces, instead emphasizing the need for trust and transparency in existing institutions. The focus, however, is on the need for transparency and trust; science still needs to reestablish relations of trust between science practitioners and members of different publics. One area where this is particularly critical is where science is deemed to suffer from a lack of certainty. The idea that under certain conditions of uncertainty (to wit, ”post normal” science) there should be extended peer review was one put forward by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz in a series of papers (see Yearley et al. 2001 for a fuller exposition). They sought to develop a theoretical framework for understanding on what grounds and under what conditions the public should be involved. Put simply, they said that where the scientists had no firm evidence on what to base a decision, then the non scientist’s view was just as valid, but they also made the point that where there were high ”decision stakes” – in other words, when the outcome of the decision might impact upon a large number of people – then under those conditions the public too should have a voice. This framework was particularly influential in the 1990s. It has fed into the underlying PEST principle that science itself should no longer be controlled by a restricted corps of insiders.

One attempt to produce ”mode 2 knowledge” was made by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the UK (see Yearley et al. 2003) using a form of participatory mapping (see Cinderby & Forrester 2005): the idea was to create a common understanding as a basis to bring together the technological assessment or ”evidence based knowledge” about local air quality with the experience and concerns of local stakeholders and residents. In the City of York (UK), local authority officers were sufficiently impressed with the technique that they supported the running of mapping groups to generate maps of local perceptions of problem areas (of air quality). A political decision was made to use these maps rather than those based on technical assessment alone in the designation of the city’s air quality management area. Thus, it can be argued that the ”new” knowledge superseded the technical assessment, but there is little evidence for this experience in York being replicated elsewhere in the UK, even in this area of air quality, a ”common good” where technical and ”lay” understandings are so close. Thus it may be argued that, for the moment, the democratization of science is actually the democratization of the use – and governance – of science with little associated democratization of expertise.


  1. Cinderby, S. & Forrester, J. (2005) Facilitating the Local Governance of Air Pollution using GIS for Participation. Applied Geography 25: 143-58.
  2. Forrester, J. (1999) The Logistics of Public Participation in Environmental Assessment. International Journal of Environment and Pollution 11: 316-30.
  3. Gibbons, M. (1999) Science’s New Social Contract With Society. Nature 402 (Suppl.): C81 4.
  4. Irwin, A. & Wynne, B. (Eds.) (1996) Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Miller, S. (2001) Public Understanding of Science at the Crossroads. Public Understanding of Science 10: 115-20.
  6. Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. (2001) Rethinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  7. Rose, H. (1997) Science Wars: My Enemy’s Enemy is Only Perhaps My Friend. In: Levinson, R. & Thomas, J. (Eds.), Science Today: Problem or Crisis? Routledge, London and New York, pp. 51-64.
  8. Stirling, A. (2005) Opening Up or Closing Down? Analysis, Participation, and Power in the Social Appraisal of Science and Technology. In: Leach, M., Scoones, I., & Wynne, B. (Eds.), Science and Citizens: Globalization   and the Challenge of Engagement. Zed Books, London and New York, pp. 218-31.
  9. Yearley, S., Forrester, J., & Bailey, P. (2001) Participation and Expert Knowledge: A Case Study Analysis of Scientific Models and their Publics. In: Hisschemoller, M., Hoppe, R., Dunn, W. N., & Ravetz, J. R. (Eds.), Knowledge, Power, and Participation in Environmental Policy Analysis. Policy Studies Review Annual, Vol. 12. Transaction, New Brunswick and London, pp. 349-70.
  10. Yearley, S., Cinderby, S., Forrester, J., Bailey, P., & Rosen, P. (2003) Participatory Modelling and the Local Governance of the Politics of UK Air Pollution: A Three-City Case Study. Environmental Values 12: 247-62.
  11. Ziman, J. (1996) Is Science Losing its Objectivity? Nature 382: 751-4.

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