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Going Beyond a Public Understanding of Science to Give the Public a Voice


Tiffany Lohwater

As researchers develop breakthroughs and answer tough questions confronting deeply-held beliefs, the manager of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology encouraged scientists and educators to engage the public in science-related dialogue that considers the complex ethical and moral questions arising from new discoveries.

The effort should go beyond simply promoting a public understanding of science, Tiffany Lohwater said at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums. Instead, it should seek to transform a one-way conversation between scientists and the public into a two-way discussion, allowing citizens to ask questions and voice their concerns. This is especially important for hot-button topics like stem cell research and climate change.

Speaking 3 May in Philadelphia, Lohwater, along with Larry Bell, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the Museum of Science in Boston, said that shifting perspectives in what scientists, science and educational institutions, and members of the public might contribute to public dialogue recognize that the public has an important voice in the use of science and technology.

By encouraging the public to voice their concerns about emerging technology or ideas, scientists have an opportunity to listen and respond to possible ethical and moral concerns.

"The traditional public understanding of science model operates under the assumption that as people become more scientifically literate, they will accept, support, and use science," said Lohwater, whose center was launched in 2004. "But public engagement with science allows that both scientists and non-scientists bring valuable knowledge and perspectives that can guide the application of science in society."

Lohwater and Bell's presentation was based on a report published in March by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The report calls on informal science educators—professionals in film and broadcast media, science centers and museums, zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and nature centers, digital media and gaming, science journalism, and youth, community, and after-school programs—and other science and educational institutions to incorporate public engagement with science activities and perspectives into their educational outreach. The inquiry group that produced the report was co-chaired by Lohwater and Bell, and included six other informal science educators and communicators.

The report said that as "responses to science are deeply informed by knowledge and perspectives from non-science domains, such as senses of ethics and morality," it is imperative to "encourage conversations with all aspects of society including the public, scientists, and decision makers."

Lohwater said that the report was an attempt to describe and provide examples of public engagement with science, which is already a model used by science educators and communicators in the United States and internationally, and add to the discussion about ways to encourage public engagement with science.

Lohwater added that public engagement and understanding are not mutually exclusive modes of interacting with the public, but rather can be integrated into each other.

"The end goal of the project is to provide a resource to help organizations and individuals integrate public engagement with science into their educational outreach," said Lohwater. "It's about showing everyone—scientists, educators, and the public—that they have much to learn from each other."