Engaging the Public
What is Public Engagement?
There are various approaches to the relationship between science and society. Since science is so prevalent in all facets of life, the science-society relationship can be seen as constructive, tension-filled, or everything in between.
For example, consider the complexities surrounding climate change. On certain basic points, scientists and the public exist largely in sync (eg: humans produce pollution). Yet on other points of the climate change conversation, some members of the public remain at odds with the scientific community (eg: human-produced pollution causes climate change).
In either case, interaction between interested stakeholders — from scientists to members of the public—is critical to finding common ground on which to move forward.
Ideas on ways to approach this interaction have changed over the years. One view on how to best encourage the interactions between science and society focuses on "public understanding" while a newer approach focuses on "public engagement."
Public Understanding: The traditional approach to dealing with science-society relations — particularly those filled with tension — has been to try to increase public understanding of scientific discoveries and theories. However, many members of the public understand basic facts and issues related to scientific advances but may find them unpalatable, and thus education alone may be insufficient.
Public Engagement: The public engagement approach often uses and builds upon public understanding efforts, moving toward more comprehensive public dialogue opportunities. Through engagement, scientists and the public hold an ongoing dialogue about the benefits and risks of the science and technology impacting our daily lives. In doing so, questions and tensions left otherwise unspoken or bitterly debated can be listened to and discussed early on. Further, involving a wide-range of interested stakeholders can connect seemingly unrelated viewpoints with far-reaching effects.
Learn more about public engagement and the relationship between scientists and the public:
- AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology
- Science Insights and News Service, a listing of recent op-eds and interviews by AAAS on public engagement issues
- Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Education (PDF)