Engaging the Scientific Community With the Public

  • April 21, 2008
  • By Rick Borchelt and Kathy Hudson


In 2004 the Genetics and Public Policy Center fielded a survey of more than 4,000 U.S. residents about new genetic technologies, and more than 40 percent said they did not trust scientists “to put society's interest above their personal goals.” The roots of this uneasy relationship lie in the reliance that the science and technology community places in various “deficit models” of interaction with the public. The basic assumption behind these models is that there is a linear progression from public education to public understanding to public support, and that this progression—if followed—inevitably cultivates a public wildly enthusiastic about research. But this model of scientific engagement with the public obviously isn't working.

Lately, all manner of ways to “involve” the public in science policy and practice have cropped up, mostly around oversight of emerging technologies like synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and human genetics.  Scientific associations are developing centers devoted to public engagement in science, funding agencies have created sweeping mandates for collecting public input on research, and research-performing institutions are hosting community meetings and science cafes about their work.  But one might wonder—are these new organizations going to truly “engage” the public?

In a nutshell, an erosion of public trust that began as a trickle of doubt about radiation safety and pesticides has grown to program-threatening uprisings against emerging new technologies, from genetically altered “Frankenfoods” to concern over “grey goo” in nanotechnology.

Initially, the “deficit” in question was framed as an “information deficit”—if only lay people knew what scientists did, goes this line of thought, they too would support the agendas of the scientific establishment.  Since World War II, the science community has been operating under this information-deficit model, built on one-way flow of information from the expert to the public with very little information flowing back the other way. This model drove communication of science and technology for the last half of the 20th century, despite its very obvious shortcoming: Neither public support for research nor scientific literacy increased significantly in all that time.

More recently, however, the information deficit model increasingly has been reframed as an “attitudinal deficit”—to know us is to love us, runs the mantra of this public-understanding school of science-society interaction.  Having realized the practical futility—if not the ethical challenge—of making every lay person a lay scientist, the public-understanding model contents itself with pursuing public appreciation, emphasizing the benefits of science to society without worrying unduly about how much science the public actually understands.  The end goal hasn't changed—increased public support of S&T—even if the methods used to get there and the metrics used to define success are different.  The direction of information flow remains the same as well: top-down from the scientist or engineer to the public.

Read the full op-ed Engaging the Scientific Community With the Public on the Science Progress Web site.