April 24, 2014, by Sujatha Raman

On being a Science Public


I’m currently engaged in researching Responsible Research and Innovation, in particular its mandate for ‘inclusive engagement’. And so, a couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of an opportunity to do some ad-hoc ethnographic field research and went to attend two public engagement events which were part of my local Festival of Science. The first was a meeting on fracking, billed as an expert panel debate, and the second allowed the audience to quiz a group of experts on Big Data in the manner of a Parliamentary select committee.

Image by: Thierry Gregorius (Cartoon: Big Data) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by: Thierry Gregorius (Cartoon: Big Data) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The events were similar in that they were both organised as part of the university’s outreach agenda (which predates that of RRI) and were based on controversial technologies which fall into the EPSRC’s challenge themes. However, they differed quite markedly in structure, and thus produced very different feelings about their relationship with ‘the public’.

An evening of fracking

The fracking event was organised by a postgraduate student group in conjunction with a relatively new university spin-out designed to bring industry and academia together around energy research. In introducing the debate the moderator, an engineering professor, noted that there was ‘a time for protest, and a time for reasoned debate’, and we were there for the latter. The implication (setting aside the perhaps unintended insinuation that protest and reason must of course be mutually exclusive) was that through ‘reason’ we, as a public, would arrive at a different conclusion from the activists at Balcombe, one that accepts the ‘hard choices‘ which must be made in the name of economic growth and security of the UK’s energy supply.

Leaving aside the finer points of the fracking debate, it is these sorts of deeply embedded assumptions about the purpose of ‘engagement’ which I found most interesting. The questions, submitted beforehand and vetted by the organisers, were thoughtful, but left little time for comments or questions from the audience. The five panellists – a representative of the industry, an economist, a geologist, a politician and an environmental activist – generally agreed that the UK will not be able to replicate the US experience, but differed widely on risk, benefit and motivation. Overall, it was difficult to escape the subtle implication that those who wanted to engage in a grown-up debate would confine their discussion to risk in the procedure itself, and that those who wanted to argue against developing new fossil fuels – even if 100% safe — for a fifty year period of ‘transition’ were naïve children who did not understand the harsh realities of the world.

…and a day of Big Data

 The fracking debate had taken place in the evening in an enormous room which is part of the university refectory, but the Parliamentary Outreach session on Big Data took place in a lecture theatre in the law school at mid-day. This made me wonder how accessible it would actually be to the ordinary public, and indeed the audience appeared to be mostly students and academics, whereas the audience at the fracking debate had been ten times larger, and much more mixed. The panel at Big Data included a representative from the House of Commons Science and Technology committee, along with three experts in the field, and was meant to represent the way the committee works. Where ‘members of the public’ in the fracking debate had been constructed as largely observers of an exchange between experts, here the focus was very much on interacting with an audience which had to play its part as interrogators in order for the event to work.

The arguments for/against Big Data to some extent echo those about energy, including its centrality to just about everything we do with our lives. Where fracking causes worry about inadvertent escape of methane or toxic chemicals, Big Data causes worry about inadvertent escape of sensitive information. Both are spoken of as a huge untapped resource which should be exploited to grow the economy, create X number of jobs, and position the UK as world-leaders in the field. However, as members of the public, we do not ourselves produce the resource which others aim to ‘exploit’ when it comes to energy, whereas we are the producers of raw material for Big Data. This is a crucial difference, particularly in terms of feeling entitled, even empowered, to have a say in how, where, when, and for what purpose that resource gets mined, refabricated, and sold.

Engaging with Science Publics: Does it make a difference?

Which brings me to the question of being constituted as a ‘public’ in need of information in order to ‘make informed decisions’, which is how we were portrayed at both events. The feeling I could not escape during these well-planned, well-behaved, well-intentioned engagements was that it was all rather meaningless. Experts would talk and we, ‘the public’, would listen. Some of us could ask questions, and they would answer. And presumably we would all leave the room a little bit wiser, but not really moved from the positions we held at the beginning, nor the frames – risk, climate change, privacy, growth – we use as the basis for analysing the evidence. And if you entered confused, ambivalent, or any other incarnation of what is often championed as ‘open-minded’, the equally reasonable arguments presented by both sides probably ensured that you left in a similar state.

Meanwhile, the industry will move on because in both cases the government has already decided that it will be so. Making ‘informed decisions’ does not seem to include deciding against, and even if it did, there is no genuine capacity to influence policy built into these events. Both, in fact, according to their organisers, were more about bringing the public into the university as part of its mandate to be useful to the local community, than about seriously questioning the technologies themselves.

What, then, does all of this mean for the inclusive engagement aspects of the Responsible (Research and) Innovation agenda being put forward by the RCUK and the European Union as a new framework for science, technology and innovation policy? Despite thoroughly enjoying both events, they seemed to me to be proceeding from what might be thought of as the Deficit Model v2.0. Here, the public is not so much assumed to be ignorant and in need of expert explanation so we will have a greater trust in science (as the Public Understanding of Science movement suggests). But we are still considered to have a deficit of information, so that ‘balanced’ arguments (without acknowledgement that these are actually more perpendicular than polar) and a little time for Q&A is presumed effective, when what we really have is a deficit of engagement. Events such as these, interesting and informative as they are, cannot compensate for the fact that they occur after the decisions to follow a path of innovation have all been made. As such, they can only engage with questions of how to follow this path without leading to a cordon of police dragging a Member of Parliament away from a protest blockade.

It is certainly still possible to subject Big Data and fracking to consultation structures similar to those developed for unproven, emergent technologies (though both are already in play), such as citizens juries with a clear mandate to incorporate their findings in subsequent policy. The Research Councils do seem to understand ‘inclusive engagement’ as including the possibility of stopping or changing a programme of research, as EPSRC’s cancelling the SPICE test-bed experiment due to ethical concerns would  suggest. But it should be noted that this was a stakeholder-level consultation for a decision involving allocation of public research funds. RCUK, as an organisation, cannot control private investment in R&D, nor is it tasked with drafting legally binding regulation (although it has entire programmes directed towards research on public engagement, through which it funds many events such as these). Meanwhile, research in the scientific field from which the SPICE project originates – geoengineering, or ‘hacking the planet’ as a response to climate change – continues unabated.

All of which suggests that technological and political governance have to go hand-in-hand, otherwise public engagement runs the risk of descending into scientifically literate exercises in meaninglessness. What does it matter how informed we are, or how balanced the debate, if the government-of-the-moment has already decided a course of action and refuses to be moved from it? How can we expect the RCUK to help produce a society of responsible innovators, when contentious but potentially lucrative sectors of the economy are left to decide for themselves the definitions of risk, impact, and ‘public good’, and when government leaders repeatedly state that opponents of this or that technology are wicked and irrational, rather than deal with their very reasonable social, ethical and economic concerns?

Stevienna de Saille is Research Fellow in the Leverhulme Making Science Public Programme, based at the University of Sheffield. She is investigating the construction of ‘Responsible (Research and) Innovation’ at EU and UK levels, with a dual focus on the inclusion of ‘unruly’ publics in the R(R)I framework, and technological innovation within the ‘Grand Challenge’ of aging populations.

Note: This post is part of a series of blogposts for a policy thought-leadership project on Responsive Research supported by Sciencewise-ERC. Sciencewise-ERC is not responsible for the content of any of the views expressed here.



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