Engaging whom and for what ends?
Australian stakeholders’ constructions of public engagement in relation to nanotechnologies
Alan Petersen1,*, Diana Bowman2
School of Political and Social Inquiry, Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Clayton Campus Monash University,
3800 Victoria, Australia
Risk Science Center and the Department of Health Management and Policy, The University of Michigan School of Public
Health, 1415 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor Michigan 48109-2029, USA
ABSTRACT: In recent years the language of public engagement has increasingly infused discussions
about the science–society relationship. This is particularly evident in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe in relation to nanotechnologies. Thus far, the discourse of public engagement has been largely preoccupied with exploring the mechanisms for ‘engaging’ ‘the public’, with single stakeholder-driven events dominating initiatives. Many engagement efforts have re – invented the so-called deficit model of public understanding, whereby ‘the problem’ to be addressed is ‘the public’s’ assumed ‘ignorance’ or lack of awareness of the science. In comparison,
there has been little reflection on the assumptions and conceptual frameworks that guide stakeholders’ policies and actions, including constructions of science and citizenship. If one is to address the lack of opportunities for citizen participation in science policymaking, it is essential to question these assumptions and reveal how they guide and limit thinking and action. This article outlines the diverse conceptions of ‘the public’ and ‘public engagement’, reflecting the different values, experiences and positioning of Australian stakeholders within the nanotechnology field.
The article seeks to contextualise the discourse of public engagement, highlighting the particular
set of conditions and concerns that have shaped its language and practices and the attendant governmental
implications. Finally, it concludes by identifying the kinds of strategies that will be
required to advance the democratisation of science and technology in the future.
KEY WORDS: Nanotechnologies · Public engagement · Democratisation of science · Stakeholders ·
In recent years ‘public engagement’ has become a catchphrase in the field of new and emerging technologies
in a number of countries. In the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) more generally, there have been growing demands from policymakers, scientists and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ‘engage’ ‘the public’ during the early phase of technology development. Such calls would appear to be a direct response to the perceived
failure by government and industry to engage with the public in relation to genetically modified (GM) foods. Although these demands are not limited to particular technological fields, nanotechnologies are widely seen as providing a ‘test case’ for early or so-called ‘upstream’ public engagement (see, e.g. Wilsdon & Willis 2004, Gavelin et al. 2007). This form of engagement is referred to as ‘upstream’ since it is seen to involve publics in deliberations during the phase when technologies are still being developed, rather than ‘downstream’ when they are being applied (Rogers-Hayden & Pidgeon 2007). As articulated in the landmark Royal Society-Royal Academy
of Engineering (RS-RAE) report, Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, there is a need to commence engagement/dialogue early, before key decisions are made, impacts are evident and public discourse on the technologies becomes settled (RS-RAE 2004). A number of designated ‘public engagement’ activities, sometimes
called ‘experiments’, centering on nanotechnologies were funded in the wake of the release of this report,
both in the UK (Gavelin et al. 2007) and the EU (see, e.g. Hullman 2008, von Schomberg & Davies 2010).
Similarly, in Australia, which has long been characterised by its technocratic approach to policymaking
(see, e.g. Mascarenhas 1990), the language of engagement has recently infiltrated government science
and technology programs and strategies. In May 2009, the Australian Labour Government launched the National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS), which includes a Public Awareness and Engagement Program. In 2010 and 2011, this program undertook a ‘multi-stakeholder engagement process’ involving NGOs and community groups, researchers in the biophysical and social sciences, and representatives of industry. In November 2009,
the Government announced Inspiring Australia: a national strategy for engagement with the sciences, whose stated aim was to ‘increase appreciation of science in Australian culture, facilitate in formed citizen participation in decision-making and science policy development, boost confidence in the Australian Government’s research investment, and ensure a continuing supply of well-qualified science graduates’ (Commonwealth of Australia 2010, p. xvii). This participatory turn has been portrayed by some commentators as signalling a fundamental shift in the
approach to science communication that had been based on an implicit deficit model of the public
understanding of science. But it needs to be asked: How has ‘public engagement’ been interpreted in practice? Who is being ‘engaged’, by what means and to what ends?
This article critically examines the discourse of public engagement as it has operated in relation to
nanotechnologies in Australia, highlighting its manifestations and implications in practice. We argue that in the nanotechnology field ‘public engagement’ has served rhetorically to help engender support for programs of research and to manage the uncertainties associated with technologies, especially public responses. To date, there has been little scope for public deliberation on substantive questions concerning the overall direction of the research, technological outcomes, and economic or socio-political implications. Making reference to recent public engagement endeavours and drawing on data from our own study of Australian stakeholders’ views on communication on nanotechnology (Petersen et al. 2010), we highlight the various stakeholder articulations of ‘public engagement’, reflecting very different constructions of citizens and the state and their respective roles and responsibilities in the field of science and technology. The definitional ambiguity of ‘public engagement’, we argue, has made it vulnerable to appropriation by different groups with often conflicting agendas and to becoming a tool for the management of public opinion. Addressing the deficit in democratic processes that excludes the majority of citizens from key decisions affecting the development of technologies, we contend, will require a re-framing of the language and practices of citizenship. In the article, we provide an outline for a new form of scientific citizenship; one that will enable citizens to interrogate scientists’ and policymakers’ representations of science and its publics
and of the fundamental premises and priorities of a science-based economy and culture. We suggest that
methods are needed that allow citizens to deliberate on social objectives rather than just scientific, technical
and ethical issues that have been the emphasis of public engagement endeavours to date.
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