13 July 2021

By Peter Weingart

A new article published in PLOS ONE on 7 July 2021:”Public engagement with science—Origins, motives and impact in academic literature and science policy“, presents an in-depth analysis of the ‘public engagement with science’ rhetoric.

‘Public engagement with science’ together with ‘citizen science’ has become the new mantra of science policy in many countries all over the world. The rhetoric has been developed first by scholars of the STS (Science-Technology-Society)-community. Subsequently, it was taken up by science policy makers first in the United Kingdom (UK), the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (USA), then also in South Africa (SA). While the motives of the academics were primarily to promote the ‘democratization’ of science, the motives of science policy makers are more pragmatic: legitimation of public expenditures and related policies which are perceived to be not immediately transparent to the general public, and the expectation that the input from the general public may contribute to the pace of innovation. As the competition for media attention has become increasingly important, especially in politics but also in science, the development of rhetorics by communicators follows a logic of mutual outdoing.

The consequences of these dynamics are twofold: the central terms of the requisite rhetoric become ‘buzz words’, and their original meanings are lost to progressively vacuous generalities. This effect is exacerbated by the vagueness of the definition of the audiences that are being addressed with these rhetorics. Already in 2008, the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) stated that they were using ‘public engagement’ as an ‘umbrella term’ and listed science festivals, centres, museums, cafes, media, consultations, feedback techniques, and public dialogue among the activities covered. Eleven years later the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), set up in the meantime, declared that public engagement describes the “myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public”. Not only does this vagueness make the choice of instruments with which the public is to be ‘engaged’ difficult. It also makes the evaluation of engagement strategies, i.e. their effectiveness or failures, virtually impossible. Observers have diagnosed this situation as ‘rhetoric running ahead of practice’.

The study is a comprehensive analysis of the development of the ‘engagement’ rhetoric in the pertinent academic literature on science communication and in science policy documents. By way of a content analysis of articles published in three leading science communication journals and a selection of science policy documents from the UK, the USA, the EU, and SA, the variety of motives underlying the engagement rhetoric, as well as the impact it has on science policies, are analyzed.

Not only does the systemic examination of the documents reveal the increasingly vague and inclusive definition of ‘engagement’ as well as of the ‘general public’ being addressed. It also corroborates earlier diagnoses that communication and engagement with clearly defined stakeholder groups about specific problems of interest to them and the pertinent scientific knowledge will be a more successful manner of ‘engagement’. This take-away message has recently been supported by experiences with science communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.