ESRC New Opportunities Programme on the Public Understanding of Science

February 1998 - August 1999

End of Award Report from the Co-ordinators:
Professor Alan Irwin (Brunel University)
Mr Peter Healey (Science Policy Support Group, London)

December 1999

1. PUS New Opportunities Programme Objectives:

The Programme Objectives were:

  • To review and re-state the definition of the topic and to collate, analyse and report on the current state of social science-based knowledge
  • To improve the flow of findings and ideas from research to policy and practice, and also between users, potential users and beneficiaries and researchers
  • To consider and report on the future research agenda

2. PUS Programme Resources:

The achieved programme budget was about 300k. This allowed us, in addition to coordination costs, to appoint 10 fellows, who covered a wide range of disciplinary approaches (political science, accounting, social anthropology, education and sociology) and an equally-wide range of issues in sciences ranging from geology to medicine. The original plans for the programme had specified only four fellowships, but the commissioning panel, having reviewed the range and quality of the 43 bids coming forward, suggested that we make a case for more to the RPB. This was successful. Otherwise the budget covered travel and subsistence, and allowed for the costs of a number of programme planning and dissemination meetings in London, engagement with policymakers, practitioners and researchers around the country, and one visit, primarily to policymakers and practitioners, in the United States. These activities are reported more fully below.

3. A parallel UK/Nordic countries programme:

The ESRC international activities budget funded collaborative activity with the Nordic countries on PUS, which we also coordinated, in parallel to the New Opportunities Programme. This was fully reported in July 1999. The work on PUS was one of three parallel ESRC initiatives under a formal social science collaboration agreement between ESRC and the Nordic research councils which follow a similar format involving two substantive workshops in different countries. The first workshop on this theme took place in Helsinki in October 1998.

The theme of the Helsinki workshop was Biotechnology and Public Understanding of Science. Thirty-four people took part, from Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania, Norway and the UK, the other UK participants besides the coordinators being Les Levidow of the Open University and John Durant of Imperial College and the Science Museum. The three sessions were framed by a series of issues from Alan Irwin, which sought largely to encourage a critical and comparative approach, regarding biotechnology as a subject area for PUS, and regarding different countries' approach both to the substantive issues and to PUS research. Work was organised in four sessions: country reports on PUS in the national context; attitudes, understanding and ethical concerns; modes of biotechnology assessment, practical experiences, mechanisms and outcomes; with a final session on the Finnish biotechnology debate. The workshop was clearly an event in the Finnish social science calendar and was well received; it was opened by the President of the Academy of Finland and the proceedings were published by the Academy in time for the second workshop in London on 15-16 April 1999.

This workshop, entitled Public Understanding and the New Politics of Science, developed a theme which had been prominent in Helsinki about the interaction between policy cultures in the different countries and the development of public participation in science. It also followed up discussion in Helsinki about a continuing collaboration on the public understanding of science between ESRC and NOS-S (the Nordic Research Councils' own framework for collaboration in the social sciences), and the relationship of this to possible future work in the UK and under FP5. The UK Nordics collaboration contributed both to the international standing of the programme and to the development of ideas.

A view of change in PUS issues and institutions:

The Nordics collaborative programme produced a series of papers analysing the development of PUS in a range of participating countries, especially in relation to biotechnology. This was published as Reijo Miettinen (ed) Biotechnology and Public Understanding of Science by the Academy of Finland (publication 3/99). One of the UK papers [1] put forward a view of change in PUS issues and institutions. Under this in the contemporary UK three models of public understanding of science coexisted. These had different dates of origin, but served as competing rhetorics or repertoires justifying action. They can be summarised as:

1. The Enlightenment Model (typical date 1675)

  • Cultural and economic drivers: exploiting assets
  • Science gains legitimacy from government/the crown
  • PUS means diffusion amongst the elite
  • 'Trickle-down' only to wider publics

2. The Economic model (typical date 1993)

  • Economic drivers: creating assets
  • Science & government gain legitimacy from industry
  • Publics seen largely as economic constraints
  • Communication one-way via traditional media

3. The (Emerging) Democratic Model (typical date 200?)

  • Sustainability: conserving social and economic assets
  • Publics (citizens & consumers) legitimate other actors
  • Participatory processes predominate
  • Media become interactive
  • Changing institutional landscape: research councils well placed to build trust

The economic and the democratic models are held to be in particularly sharp competition in the contemporary UK.

Visit to the United States:

This was a one week trip designed to tap into some of the current thinking and initiatives on public understanding of science in federal government and non-government agencies and organisations managing science located in and around Washington DC. It did not attempt to review current academic work on public understanding of science, nor state level activity, nor activist and lobbying groups, although all of these are referred to. In these circumstances any conclusions may be biased by this institutional sample and must be seen as tentative and personal.

In some respects the US scene seems very familiar. It is clear that, as in the UK, in their approach to PUS, different institutions are primarily motivated by enlightenment, economic or democratic models of the relationship between science and its publics. There is seem to be a degree of fragmentation of institutional effort in the US that is also familiar in the UK: too many organisational interests concerned primarily with the identity of their particular products, and unwilling to share aims and experience.

Despite this, there is an impression of much greater consistency of effort over time to PUS: a continual commitment within institutions. This is perhaps particularly evidenced in research: in the time-series of survey data (however methodologically limited) produced by SRS division at NSF; by the comprehensive and systematic nature of the statement on vision, mission and goals of the NAS, including a commitment to inform scientists about research in public understanding of science (does any organisation in the UK see this as part of their continuing national responsibility?)

In general some issues, such as GM crops, appear to have been less controversial in the US compared with Europe, and compared with the UK in particular. A number of factors may contribute to this: the attitudinal legacy of BSE in Britain, the stronger value given to economic motivations in the US (and the perceived skill of Monsanto in exploiting them there), the ability of US citizens to see a wider set of trade-offs between agricultural practice and their huge hinterland of wilderness. However, there was little belief that these differences had any permanence and there was one view that a 'new rural romanticism' amongst the US urban affluent may focus attention on environmental choices in land bordering the big cities.

Medical issues dominate PUS in the US, because of similarities with the UK - the biomedical sciences in both countries are throwing up most of the novel challenges - but also because of differences. The private systeivery of medical care in the US gives more incentives for consumers to inform themselves (as well as delivering much higher proportions of GNP to healthcare). There was wide consensus that NIH represented state of the art practice of public engagement amongst federal agencies. 'Legitimacy gateways' deserve consideration.

There is a similar level of concern with evaluation of practice in PUS in the US as in the UK, and this, combined with a similar perceived fragmentation of effort noted above, was responsible for strong support for international attempts to try to frame research and practice as consistently as possible so as to be able to communicate it and see the scope and limits for cross-boundary learning of various kinds (eg. national, organisational, disciplinary). There is scope for a timely initiative on this on a cost-sharing basis between Europe, the US and (if they were to be involved) Japan.

Work of the Fellows:

There were ten Fellows appointed under the Programme, whose awards are listed below.

Since the Fellowships constituted the major expenditure of this programme, summaries of their conclusions are at annex 1.

At the time of writing, seven out of ten end-of-award reports from fellows are in. Of the five who have received grades from rapporteurs, two have received outstanding grades and three good [Catrin - is this right? - outstandings Robinson and Locke?]

Managing Producer User Relations in Research Science Institutes - Dr Laurie Cohen, Loughborough University

Green Filters - 'Alternative' Knowledge Intermediaries and Environmental Policy - Dr Wolfgang Rudig, Strathclyde University

PUS - A Governance Perspective - Professor Rebecca Boden, Middlesex University Business School

Rhetoric and the Public Understanding of Science - Dr Simon Locke, Kingston University

Global Cyberconference on Public Understanding of Science - Professor Steve Fuller, University of Durham (now at the University of Warwick)

Public Understanding of the Science in Medicine - Dr Ian Robinson, Brunel University

Public Understanding, Models and Simulations - Professor Steve Yearley, University of York

Towards a Science Education for the Public Understanding of Science - Dr Jonathan Osborne, King's College, London

Expertise in Understandings of New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies - Dr Jeanette Edwards, Keele University

The Changing Mores of Science: Public Understanding and Public Accountability - Dr Josephine Stein, University of East London

Development of a research agenda:

A specific part of our brief was the development of a candidate new research programme for possible ESRC funding. This was to take account of both research capacities - as expressed through the programme fellows and more widely in the academic community - and of the expressed needs of policymakers and practitioners.

We were very actively involved in a range of meetings, presentations and activities - notably in making the lead presentation at the House of Commons launch of the 1998 Science, Engineering and Technology week; in taking lead responsibility for the COPUS Forum Building Bridges to Science at the British Association's Edinburgh Science Festival in 1999; in advising the OST on the Public Consultation on the Biosciences, and on the long-term evaluation of the public understanding of science; in advising DG12 on the FP5 programme Raising Public Awareness; and in being invited to give oral evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology enquiry on Science and Society. In addition we consulted with numerous interested institutions.

All of these meetings contributed to programme development. In addition we took a series of specific steps to further the process:

  • in spring 1998 we held a series of lunchtime seminars which brought together natural and social scientists and science managers and policymakers to distil key issues;
  • development of the paper referred to above helped us shape our view of the principal issues
  • our evolving bid was discussed with the academic community at a series of academic meetings across the country during 1998-99
  • discussions were held with other funders to ensure that our proposals were complementary to theirs
  • in autumn 1999 we put a draft bid out to consultation to over 150 institutions and individuals
  • written responses to that bid, and comments made at a consultative workshop held in London on 3 December 1999, were taken into account in final revisions of the document.

Our research proposal, Science, Governance and Social Change, was submitted to ESRC in December 1999. Its objectives are:

  • to explore, research and review the changing relations between science, engineering and technology - and also between more publicly-generated forms of knowledge and expertise - and the wider society
  • To develop UK research capacity relevant to the understanding of science, technology and social change
  • To enrich the quality of public and policy debate regarding new scientific and technological developments and to encourage reflective and informed discussion over the future relationship between such developments and expressed social needs
  • To consider the particular questions for scientific governance raised by the emergence of plural sources of knowledge and expertise, by the growing recognition of socio-technical uncertainty and by increased social and economic pressures on technical decision-making processes (including those of public accountability and international competitiveness)
  • To use this understanding to provide a framework for the design and evaluation of new approaches to the communication and management of science and technology in the UK
  • To provide a forum for social scientists, natural scientists and engineers, together with policymakers, practitioners and a range of interest groups, to consider together what is being learned and its implications for practice as well as for future programme targets. Contributory funding for this is being sought from the Wellcome Trust.

The research component of our proposed programme of work is organised around four themes:

  • Changing relations of knowledge and expertise
  • Science, citizenship and public engagement
  • Re-modelling science communication
  • Governance and institutional change

Later Note:

This research bid in its final form was submitted at the end of January 2000. It received outstanding ratings from five out of six international referees and was decided to be funded by the ESRC at the level of 4.5m in Spring 2000. The title was changed to Science and Society.

[1] Healey in Miettinen, opus cit. pp 68-81