What is Public Engagement?
The Science-Society Relationship
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."
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.
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 participate in discussion about the benefits and risks of the science and technology impacting our daily lives. In doing so, questions and tensions can be listened to and addressed. Further, involving a wide-range of interested stakeholders can connect seemingly unrelated viewpoints with far-reaching effects.
What Does Public Engagement Look Like?
There is no right response to the question of what activities fully define public engagement. The key in engagement is the presence of a dialogue between scientists and the general public, something that can take place in countless ways, locations, and formats. With that in mind, public engagement can allow for creative, inventive means of conversing and mutual learning.
A few examples of engagement might include radio interviews with call-in questions, demonstrations with audience participation, science cafes, university campus events, online chats, community meetings, and the list goes on. Engagement efforts need not be face-to-face. Public engagement often includes the use of social and online media that allow scientists and the public to connect from a distance.
Who is Involved?
It is important to remember that there are many members of and sub-groups within "the public." For example, gardeners, middle school students, and the elderly are all "the public." Just as different kinds of public participants can become involved, so can different types of scientists and engineers. Engagement should span all scientific disciplines because all research impacts the public.
Learn more about public engagement and the relationship between scientists and the public:
Science Insights and News Service, a listing of recent op-eds and interviews by AAAS on public engagement issues