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Critiques of public engagement

Public engagement with science has been attributed with many qualities and capacities, all of them admirable in principle. It is open and inclusive, develops democratic capacity, and produces socially valid policy outcomes. It generates intelligence about public aspirations for the future, protects us from costly (financial and other) mistakes in the implementation of new technologies or strategies for existing technologies, and it helps us to understand each other, whether we are scientists or not. But at the same time, as a growing literature clearly identifies, some public engagement has served as a means for limiting the range of technological choices and legitimating particular interventions in decision-making (Elam and Bertilsson, 2003), and for delegitimating opposition (Levidow, 2007). Public engagement can also be used to generate a familiarity that can serve as a substitute for trust, and it is sometimes driven by, and limited by, an ideology of innovation that privileges particular technologies, usually those with economic potential. And as Lezaun and Soneryd (2007) argue, inclusivity is compromised when public engagement marginalises the opinionated citizen – such as members of activist groups – and engages instead with the ‘quiet citizen’, who is ‘the only constituency weightless enough to be moved by the kinds of consultation exercises and deliberative processes that governments and their consultants dream up’. Inclusivity can become paralysing: in 2012, the London-based consultancy Involve, who are, according to their own publicity, ‘experts in public participation’, appointed an internal panel of lay advisors. Are we, with a nod to Harry Collins, falling into an ‘engager’s regress’?

In 2002 Collins and Evans pointed to the limitations of inclusivity, and brought knowledge back into the picture: they asked how does one judge the social value of the advice of a small number of people who, by virtue of their training and experience in institutions that we as a society support and respect, know what they are talking about, as compared to inclusive democratic input from many laypeople who may know little of the science in question and have no opinions about it? This they summarise as ‘the tension between the problem of legitimacy and the problem of extension’ (Collins and Evans, 2002). This tension is nowhere clearer than in the health service in the UK, in which, at precisely the point where technical experts inevitably encounter laypeople – that is, in clinical situations – the dialogical culture has made very little impact, and policy-makers and ethicists, as well as clinicians, struggle to find space for meaningful and productive patient participation (Ocloo and Mathews, 2016).

In response to Collins and Evans, Darren Durant suggested separating the deliberative aspects of public engagement, which can be extensive, and involve many people, from decision-making, which requires legitimated expertise and so falls to the qualified few (Durant, 2010). Escobar explores these various definitions, pluralising engagement and urging sensitivity in the search for the right engagement tool for the job (Escobar, 2011). Sometimes, the right tool looks very like traditional science communication, packed with the ideas, stories, images and signs that show us new perspectives on our natural world. This may be its salvation in our profoundly mediatised world, because, as a form of science communication, deliberative public engagement is poor media fodder. Dialogue events have no visual appeal; they are too egalitarian to be personalised and there is no scope for celebrity. The issues – especially those discussed prior to the implementation of a new technology – invariably lack currency and salience. Any attempt to mediatise immediately destroys the essential character of engagement, and produces traditional science communication. Replace a media-friendly communicative form with a non-mediatisable one and it is in effect shut down in the public sphere.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160607/006