‘Like asking a child to drive a bus …’: on seeing the publics of public engagement as citizens, not children
Last Monday (13.1.14), I joined the Open University’s ‘Engaging Research’ seminar series to share some research I’ve been doing on Scotland’s transition to a low-carbon society. Energy has always been a hugely important part of Scotland’s identity, and is set to continue to be a key part of the debates in advance of the Referendum for Scottish Independence in September 2014.
My particular interests lie in what the public engagement landscape has to say about, or how it contributes to, this ambitious transition. Fairly quickly, we can identify a disjunction between public policy priorities and the public engagement taking place from universities and the science communication infrastructure (by which I mean science centres, science festivals and informal science engagement practice). This gap is really interesting when you think about it, and in the discussion at the end of the talk we explored it a little further.
Another immediate challenge in looking at public engagement is asking the question of who gets involved. This can be an issue of how a question is framed, what ‘representativeness’ is taken to mean, how (for example) a dialogue process is designed (as we explored in the report Which Publics? When? for Sciencewise-ERC) or more subtle questions of gradual and unrecognised exclusion, as illustrated so well by Emily Dawson in How to lose publics and alienate people for this series’s October 2013 seminar.
Thinking about these questions – who engages and how – led to a broader conceptualisation of public participation with science and technology, looking beyond top-down initiatives that come from the science policy base. What might it mean to be a ‘scientific citizen’? What might you be a citizen of? What rights and responsibilities might you have? What modes of participation might you take part in? A framework was developed that identified five nodes of scientific citizenship broadly structured around the keywords education, consumers, dialogue, co-creation and activism.
When we look at the engagement of publics with Scotland’s low-carbon transition and then compare this to theoretical ideas, we see some very busy sites of activity and some surprising gaps. Activism around particular energy technologies is not at all uncommon and onshore wind capacity and woody biomass proposals have both been particular focuses for dissent. Activism around particular technological proposals – and remembering the planning system as a crucial site of public engagement with science and technology – reminds us that consensus is by no means always possible and there is always, as political theorist Chantal Mouffe would put it, ‘an inescapable moment of decision’.
This moment of decision is made real as we begin to think about the materiality of science and technology proposals. The particular shape, siting, sourcing and scale of a proposal as it comes into the world (whether a windfarm, a biomass plant, a geoengineering idea or a GM technology) has a crucial influence on how people respond to it, because these decisions make concrete, in a meaningful way, questions of power, equality and belonging. Questions, of course, that have long been at the heart of what it means to be a citizen.
Beverley Gibbs is completing her doctoral research with the University of Nottingham, sponsored by the ESRC and the Scottish Government. Before embarking on PhD research Beverley had a career as an engineer in industry and a research scientist at the National Physical Laboratory before moving into research and engineering management at NPL and in industry. She is a Chartered Engineer and has an MBA and an MA in social research methods. In October 2013 she was appointed as a Provost Research Fellow in UCL’s new Department for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, where she will teach and research on engineering policy, aiming to synthesise natural and social sciences at the point of implementation.