Published on May 5, 2011

The deficit model of public engagement is alive and well

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Flower growing through gap in benchIt has been exactly two years since I joined Involve. After 15 years in the field of international development I wanted to focus my attention on public engagement and strengthening democracy in the UK. One of the side-effects of the move is that I have been able to start using my science degree again as Involve grapples with issues of how to engage the public in the implications for society of scientific and technological developments.

I thought I’d use my little anniversary to reflect on the resonances that the last 25 years of thinking about public engagement in science has for other areas of policy-making. Specifically, having discovered the deficit model of public engagement in science policy, I’m now spotting it across a swathe of other areas of public policy.

Public engagement in science goes back a long way, witness the massive Victorian public lectures run by the Royal Institution every Christmas. The main reference points for current practitioners, however, are the Bodmer Report on the public understanding of science, published in 1985, and the Jenkins Science and Society Report, published in 2000. Both reports dealt with the problem faced that the public appears deeply suspicious and resistant to the introduction or expansion of certain types of scientific development, such as genetically modified crops or nuclear power.

In the usual version of the story about the history of public engagement in science, the Bodmer report firmly placed the blame with a public that doesn’t properly understand the science, the scientific method and the particularities of specific technological developments. The solution that the report prescribed, the story continues, was to build public understanding through better and more science education. The report was criticised almost as soon as it was published, culminating in conclusions of the influential Jenkins report that ‘the view of public understanding of science was demeaning and condescending and is no longer enough. Scientists need to understand the public: hence the importance of dialogue and engagement.’

The ‘Bodmer view’ of public engagement has been called the deficit model of engagement and it is often, somewhat unhelpfully, seen as being opposed to a deeper, more dialogic engagement with the public.

Alice Bell  debunks this somewhat linear history (indeed Bodmer himself points out that much of his thesis was contained in a 1939 book called The Social Function of Science by J.D. Bernal). However, the fault lines the retelling exposes are real. I would argue that they are real not just in relation to the public’s relationship to science, but their involvement in a range of public policy decisions; for example the stories government tells the tax payer about the way the aid budget is spent, about arts spending, the ‘rationing’ of expensive medicines, and eurocrats characterisation of the problem of lack of public support for the EU.

The prevalence of the deficit model in wider areas of policy making was brought home to me recently in two different ways. One was a recent briefing my colleague Janice Thomson wrote about the European Citizen’s Initiative where she charts the moves by the current commissioners back towards marketing the EU rather than properly engaging them in its decisions.

The second was when I recently spoke at a conference about International Development full of aid experts exploring how to build the support of taxpayers in the UK for aid. The last government achieved a significant feat when it build cross-party support for a rise of the UK aid budget to 0.7% of GDP. I’ve written before though, that what they managed to achieve was broad support for an increase in aid spending, but a support that is incredibly shallow – even after being in power for 13 years Labour failed to build a consensus for how aid should be spent. I’d argue that Labour, and the development NGOs I worked with and for, were operating on a deficit model, that the public didn’t understand aid and needed to be educated about how we were spending it. The hypothesis being that they would support an increase in the aid budget. In a previous blog about MyAid I’ve suggested that there is another way, a way that moves beyond seeing the public as ignorant about the complexities of aid and involves them in the trade-offs aid professionals are currently making.

Just as in science policy, aid professionals need to get better at ensuring that the public understands the issues – the deficit in understanding is real – but this will never be enough. The way we spend our aid, just as the uses to which we decide to put our scientific developments, will have profound implications for the kind of world we live in – the public understands this, and often doesn’t trust distant government to get the decisions right alone. We need to find ways to engage them strategically in the choices that really matter – it is in this way that we will build a citizenry that trusts the decisions that government takes.

Image: Nam2@7676

Article updated 7 June 2011 to give greater precision to the names and authors of reports.

 

4 Responses to “The deficit model of public engagement is alive and well”

  1. May 5, 2011 at 11:57 am

    I found myself thinking about this issue too, inspired by last year’s BBC Bang Goes the Theory roadshow in Plymouth, which my kids and thousands of others attended and seemed to love. I was watching the way these four scientists (actually, three and one interested lay person) were capturing the interest and imagination of passers-by to explain about super-cooling and friction. What I could learn from them about community engagement in science?

    I too have a science education and a long-time interest in how the public engages with science issues. I’ve been frustrated by how politicians, media and even our education system seem to conspire to keep us in the dark about the science that matters.

    I see a number of reasons for this… Firstly, let’s not forget that plenty of cash is invested in ensuring the public remains confused about topics when there are vested interests in a particular policy direction. See e.g. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/global_warming_contrarians/exxonmobil-report-smoke.html. And, given that Jo(ann)e public isn’t daft, she’s left believing it isn’t worth listening to anyone. We need to tirelessly challenge and expose anti-science misinformation if we’re to get anywhere.

    Secondly, as a home-educating parent, I’m all too aware of how many adults perceive their own science education to be lacking. Supercooling and frictional effects are interesting curiosities, albeit rather delightful ones, rather than something we just understand about how the world works. Most of us have been taught some fairly abstract facts and equations, which often don’t make a whole lot of sense. Very few of us are encouraged to ask the questions that enable us to connect these facts and equations with our observations of the world around us – so science and maths become irrelevant, difficult, boring.

    I argued for days with my 11 year old about convection currents, before realising that I was trying to explain GCSE physics, and he was trying to get his head round how it really works! Humbled, I was reminded that conventional science teaching reduces complex ideas and processes to nice simple ones, to make them “easy to understand” and to reproduce for exams. In doing so, it risks creating a population that is ill-equipped to apply the simpler concepts and woefully unable to work with the complexity that is essential to understanding most socially relevant scientific issues. (Or read that sentence – sorry!) How do we make sure that our education system equips everyone, not just the very few who go on to higher education, to be comfortable with complexity? How do we educate people to ask questions rather than simply reproduce answers? These are questions I’m exploring as I educate my own children. Kids get complexity, by the way. It’s reducing it they seem to struggle with.

    Given this, we can’t be too surprised if journalists, presenters and politicians over-simplify things to the extent that they inhibit informed discussion – the deficit model. Either they’re the very same adults who feel that their science education is a bit lacking, or they get it, but are stuck working within a paradigm which says this is the best way to communicate about complex issues.

    Simon, I don’t have any simple answers about the way forward, but I welcome the discussion.

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