It was an odd way to say hello. A member of senior management was giving a talk to greet new members of staff. His chosen topic: the need to close down degrees. Some courses, he said, were “not in the national interest”.
To make matters worse the leader of this staff induction day then singled out my own course for particular attention. It was “a Rolls Royce of a course” that would never run. Sheesh, what a pep talk. Day two in my new job and already it looked like I was being shown the door. Welcome to Bristol.
Perhaps I should have taken the hint. The following week my first contribution to a departmental meeting was a passionate tirade against how the institution treated its staff. Twenty years later I was doing much the same thing as branch chair of the University and College Union.
But what did he mean by ‘not in the national interest’? Isn’t that what education is for? Education is a dangerous thing – or at least it should be if it is done properly. A revolutionary force with the power to transform lives and create a society filled with free-thinking, independent individuals. Of course, there is a need for education as training but what about education as a process for opening minds, challenging the status quo and questioning the very idea of national interests?
In his book on 1960s counter-culture Theodore Roszak wrote of the “treacherous parodies of freedom, joy and fulfilment” that become a form of social control in a technocracy. The regime of experts relies on clever falsification:
We call it “education”, the “life of the mind”, the pursuit of truth”. But it is a matter of machine-tooling the young to the needs of our various baroque bureaucracies.. ..
We call it “free enterprise”. But it is a vastly restrictive system of oligopolistic market manipulation….
We call it “pluralism”. But it is a matter of the public authorities solemnly affirming everyone’s right to his own opinion as an excuse for ignoring anybody’s troubling challenge….
We call it “democracy”. But it is a matter of public opinion polling in which a “random sample” is asked to nod or wag the head in response to a set of prefabricated alternatives. usually related to the faits accompli of decision makers….
The same could be said for science communication, or at least the same questions should be asked. In whose interests is it? National interest? Scientific interest? Public interest? One would hope that these three would be the same or at least overlap but a hope should not become an assumption. Similarly, was the public engagement with science just a “treacherous parody” to bolster the regime of experts, a ritualistic nodding and wagging of heads to prefabricated alternatives?
And “engagement” was to be the new mantra for the new century. In February 2000 the U.K.’s House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology reported that “Society’s relationship with science is in a critical phase.” There was a need for “a sea-change” in the culture of U.K. science and “a new mood for dialogue”. PUS was sooo last century. The new millennium needed a new acronym: enter PEST – the Public Engagement with Science and Technology.
But a new mood and a new acronym do not necessarily mean that much had changed. Indeed, as James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis were soon to argue, “engagement” can actually be used to close down debate by making it simply part of bureaucratic processes and by how questions are framed. Even when the public is properly involved in a process of engagement debates over science and technology were too often dominated by questions of risk assessment asking simply whether a technology was safe rather than whether it was necessary in the first place.
True dialogue would give the public the freedom to set its own agenda, frame its own questions, make its own decisions. In effect, what needs to be examined is not just the processes of science communication and consultation but the whole system of deliberative democracy. Being informed is not enough; the public also needs to be empowered.
And understanding power is essential if we are to understand the nature of the dialogue itself. Both sides may now be given a voice but this equality may just mask the real inequality of power that exists. It is still the doctor that asks the patient to remove their clothes not vice versa. It is still the scientific adviser that has better access to government circles and the media. Science has accrued an immense amount of authority and recognising a need for dialogue will not make it go away.
Any success the public has had in engaging with science has been because the public has had to learn to engage with science on science’s own terms. Above all, PEST is an invitation for the public to engage with science and not for science to engage with the public.
PUS and PEST were always to be in the national interest.
Nodding and wagging our heads as we follow someone else’s agenda.
A new mood for dialogue and a new approach: no longer simply shout louder, but shout louder and listen for the echo