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The role of science studies in public engagement

The moral ‘could’ and ‘should’ of science, about which anyone can talk and to which there are many right answers, inhabit, in public engagement, the novel category of ‘elsi’. This is jargon for the bundle of ‘ethical, legal and social issues’ that social scientists have been working on for decades, but which, with its new label, is now a requirement within publicly funded scientific research projects in the UK. Scientists often ask their social-scientist colleagues to handle ‘elsi’ for them (Calvert and Martin, 2009).

Identifying the problems in public engagement inevitably problematises our engagement with public engagement. For example, UK public funding for encouraging synthetic biology brought many science studies people into scientific networks at an early stage, and they have formed their own networks to ask themselves: having been presented with this unprecedented opportunity to participate in science-world, what are we to do with it? Who wanted something from us, and what did they want? What did we need from this, and were our needs compatible with those of our paymasters and hosts? Calvert and Martin refer to the institutionalisation of social scientists within science research programmes, and have developed a repertoire of possible roles, which they have presented selectively: in the European Molecular Biology Organisation’s journal, they rehearsed two of these, contributor and collaborator. A contributor brings bolt-on expertise to fix problems in a particular niche, such as on ‘elsi’. A collaborator, on the other hand, is involved in the generation of scientific knowledge, and could, by bringing attention to the social dimensions early on in the research process, influence the kinds of scientific questions that get asked, and how they are answered.

In other forums Calvert, Martin and colleagues have advanced a third ‘C’ role: the critic. The critic tends to warn about the misuse of science, and of unintended consequences. The science itself passes by even the critic relatively unscathed, reinforcing the idea that only the applications of science are political (Balmer et al, 2012).

It does seem that science itself is untouched by public engagement: we do not question it, and it is one of the givens of science studies that scientists rarely problematise it themselves. As Jurdant pointed out in 1969, one of the problems of science communication is that science is an ideology. It is a complex of ‘isms’ – materialism, reductionism and empiricism among them – that once were contentious but are now taken as givens, at least in polite public discourse, as the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s showed (Labinger and Collins, 2001). It is a defining characteristic of ideologies that they are not open to negotiation, and so science itself is unlikely to be responsive to public engagement. Jurdant also proposed more recently that popular science can be understood as the autobiography of science: it is the story science wants to tell about itself (Jurdant, 1993). Science is not up for negotiation, and that is the story that it tells about itself in public, and it is rarely challenged: it remains ‘as is’. ‘Issues’, on the other hand, are anyone’s game.

This taking-for-granted of science-as-is has real practical consequences in real practical situations, and our lack of engagement with it narrows down our response to problems of science and society. Is materialism really the only way to understand nature? Those of a more spiritual disposition might not think so. Is reductionism really the best way to understand how biological systems work? The holists and the systems theorists doubt it. And the empiricists who champion evidence-based medicine are thus engaging with every patient who has gone before, but not the one in front of them. I am not arguing for an alternative science, but for an acknowledgement that the science we have is, at its most fundamental, a choice which could have been made otherwise. We are ready to engage on issues and applications, but science itself – its ideas, stories, images and signs – could be up for negotiation, and renew its licence discursively, rather than by proclamation. We could do this if we engaged with scientific knowledge itself, rather than only with science policy.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160607/007