Public Understanding Models and Simulations

Professor Steve Yearley, University of York
September 1998

The ways in which science and technology are understood by the public has long been of practical and academic interest. The aim of this Fellowship is to investigate the applicability of work on the public understanding of science (PUS) to one particular area of both policy relevance and academic significance: modelling.

Many of the aspects of science which touch the public most deeply involve some aspect of modelling, for example the dispersion of pollutants from factory chimneys, the flow of flood waters, the spread of infections, and even projections of the impact of European currency harmonisation. Increasingly these mathematical models are run on computers, often raising new obstacles to public understanding and participation. The availability of increasing computer power at declining cost makes the possibility of modelling all the greater; recently local authorities and other regional executive bodies as well as lobby groups have been able to carry out their own modelling activities.

There have been social scientific studies of models, but the key connection to PUS has not been systematically investigated. It is clear, however, that there are questions about public understanding in relation to (a) the accuracy and legitimacy of such models, (b) the uses and reception of the models and (c) the communication of the model outputs.

The Fellowship will proceed by identifying key empirical and conceptual studies of PUS in relation to models in a variety of areas. The study will identify and investigate key analytic concepts which describe the public's understanding of, and relation to, models and thereby produce a systematic analysis of PUS in relation to the public uses of models. Recommendations will made concerning ways to promote the public understanding of technical models and their outputs.

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