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Engaging with engagement

Despite the contextual model’s insights into knowledges, its influence was about modes of talk. It made apparent the possibility of multi-directional communication on a horizontal plane, more like Lewenstein’s web than the top-down one-way communication identified in Hilgartner’s dominant model. The fact that laypeople may well, after all, have interesting and relevant things to say about the cognitive content of science got lost in the rush towards new modes of communicating, and never mind about what.

During the 1990s, the public culture of science became a matter of public policy in the UK, and the locus of oversight and commentary moved from the learned societies and professional agencies and into the ministries (Gregory and Lock, 2008). Widespread in British political culture was the belief that the public did not trust the authorities in any field, including science; and given that the electorate seemed not to be empty-headed about science after all, it was becoming apparent that the perceived lack of trust could not be explained by a presumed public ignorance of science. Knowledge was therefore irrelevant to the political problem of science and society, and in a milestone report of 2000, the British parliament’s House of Lords foregrounded trust in science as all about institutional relationships, with knowledge barely mentioned (House of Lords, 2000). Crucially, these institutional relationships were, henceforth, to be dialogical, and conducted through public engagement, irrespective of what they were about. Public engagement would, it was claimed, better inform policy-making, build social aspirations into the planning of possible futures, and energise the democratic contributions of a broad section of citizens. Notice that these aims are political and social; they could be about schools or parks or art. And where before, natural scientists had been speaking truth to power in Whitehall about science and society, now it was the social scientists (Lock, 2009). Not only was there suddenly a wealth of public funding for social scientists to engage the public with science, but also public money for science soon came with strings attached: it became obligatory to enrol social scientists in scientific research projects, where they would handle policy and engagement (see, for example, Calvert and Martin, 2009).

The turn to dialogue appeared to be a sharp one, but like every revolution, this one drew on changes that were already happening. A word-search for ‘engagement’ in the Open University library catalogue returns 2,000 entries published during the 1990s, and 42,000 during the 2000s, on a wide range of topics (searched in 2013). The western world was becoming more dialogical, and more participatory, and this was a consequence not of the decisions of committees of scientists or Lords in historic institutions in London. The context for understanding science communication since the 1980s is not the intrinsic qualities and capacities of public engagement itself, but of the space around it, in which profound world transformations were being wrought. Two qualities of the ‘space around’ that are important for this story are the transition to neo-liberal economics, and the introduction of the PC.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160607/004