It seems to me that when social scientists/academics talk about public engagement, there’s an underlying anxiety that revolves around the roles public engagement activities and the academics who deliver those activities play. I attended a couple of public engagement presentations that were academic analyses at the 2012 S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technology) conference. The first (Towards responsible innovation: Stakeholder engagement and public dialogues on nanotechnologies) was given by Antje Grobe who focussed mostly on her experience with German public engagement (there was also some mention of a Swiss initiative although my memory fails as to the details).
Grobe mentioned the context: aging society, faltering economies, etc., as well as, the difficulties of defining nanotechnology, uncertain knowledge of the risks associated with emerging technologies, competing agendas, both within one’s country and internationally, and more. It was probably the most complexly situated public engagement analysis I have come across.
Franz Seifert’s presentation ‘Diffusion and Policy Learning in the Nanotech-Field. Movement actors and public dialogues in Great Britain, Germany and France’ offered more specific information about the events and outcomes. (Note: He mentioned the situations in Germany and France only.) I was particularly interested in the French experience as the organizers were unable to complete a series of public debates due to disruptions by an activist group (Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre). Seifert didn’t offer much more detail to the information I’d already gathered (see my March 10, 2010 posting and scroll down approximately 1/4 of the way) but he always able to contrast it with the German experience.
After listening to Seifert’s presentation, the questions that arose were these: What constitutes ‘successful’ public engagement and what role should public engagement ‘experts’ play? (These are thorny questions and I have no answers.) Arguably, the French participated vigorously in the debates that were held. Some serious concerns were raised and some public ire expressed. Meanwhile the Germans participated in public engagement exercises in just the fashion experts had planned and hoped for. In my opinion, they were successful in completely different ways and both are important.
I have one final public engagement presentation to mention and that was given by Dr. Donald M. Bruce, ‘What are publics thinking about human enhancement? Playing Democs card games in the WP7 ETHENTECH Project’. In fact, the Democs card game has been adapted for a number of public engagement exercises (including nanotechnology) for policy discussions to take place in pubs, community centres, people’s homes, and elsewhere.
Here’s more about Democs from its dedicated webpage on the neweconomics.org website,
Democs was created so that policy discussion can be open to anyone. While traditional deliberative methods, like citizens juries, are limited to a few people, who take part by invitation, Democs can be used by anyone, in their own home, their local pub or a community centre.
Our Democs kits provide:
- information about a topic on a set of card
- an interactive and engaging process to support deliberation in small groups, usually over an hour and a half.
Democs helps people understand the issues before giving their opinion, and ensure that they can make offer policy-makers reasoned, informed and valuable contributions.
We have developed kits on topics ranging from affordable housing and climate change to rubbish disposal and nanotechnology.
Democs has been used in many different contexts:
- Large-scale public engagement programmes: in 2004/05, the Herefordshire Partnership used Democs to consult over 300 people in over 50 games on developing the county’s climate change strategy.
- Schools: in 2007 we developed a kit on sustainable transport for Transport for London (TfL), widely distributed to London schools
- Conferences: Democs was used by Norfolk Ambition, the Local Strategic Partnership for Norfolk, to explore the question, ‘What will success look like?’at their 2007 annual conference
- Public meetings: a 2003 Malvern Hills District Council meeting, on GM food.
Democs has been adapted into PlayDecide – a web-based project to make discussion kits on science topics available for download across Europe.
I checked out PlayDecide which is here and found that it’s part of a larger project,
PlayDecide by FUND
FUND is a two year project supported by the European Commission to stimulate the use of discussion games and other debate formats in European cities for the development of a scientific culture at the local level.
Bruce discussed some of the issues associated with using Democs. It can be a challenge getting the results back from people who’ve requested copies of the game so they can play in the pub or at home. I can certainly understand why people might not manage to track the conversations in the first place, let alone, mail in the results afterwards. As well, people don’t necessarily discuss every single question.
Kudos to the organizers for including alternative presentations such as the Democs game and Koert Van Mensvoort’s NANO Supermarket (mentioned in my Nov. 6, 2012 posting). The contrast worked to advantage for both the ‘heavy’ political/policy discussions/traditional public engagement exercises and the alternative approaches. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to engage a wide range of people, you should use a wide range of approaches. On a related note, I also believe that audiences/publics are getting more jaded and need to be challenged.
You can find out more about more about Bruce and his projects here.
The China presentation I’m about to mention doesn’t fit the public engagement theme but I’ve decided to include it here since it won’t fit any more easily into the next and final part of this series on the 2012 S.NET conference.
I was most struck by Denis Simon’s presentation, ‘China’s Evolving Role in International S&T Affairs’, and, more specifically, his insistence that China was ‘breaking the rules’ with regard to intellectual property (patents). US government and US business have long complained about China’s approach to intellectual property. (My June 6, 2012 posting mentions a recent incident concerning a researcher at Sandia Labs who was charged with stealing research to share with China.)
What I found most interesting about Simon’s repeated protestations about China ‘breaking the rules’ is that he didn’t seem to realize the US has had a major role in developing these rules. The rules (both national and international) about intellectual property were not handed down to us by some deity; they were developed by human beings who were likely serving some specific interests of their own.
Simon did point out that China has signed international agreements and while I agree that if they didn’t like the content and had no intention of following the agreements, they probably shouldn’t have signed, China wouldn’t be the first country to pursue that particular strategy. In any event, I’m not a fan of the current patent regimes as I noted in my Nov. 8, 2012 posting about a patent being awarded to Simon Fraser University (Canada) and where I listed these rather critical postings from my archives,
For the fifth and final part of this series: informal science education and transhuman narratives.