Discover more from The Future of Being Human
Why public engagement is so important for advanced science and technology
The US President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology call out the importance of effective engagement for a thriving society
Public engagement in science and technology is oft talked about, but rarely practiced effectively. I should know — I’ve been studying, writing about, advising on, and practicing this, for years. And all too often the gap between the talk and the walk is crushingly large.
Yet a just-released letter from the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, could help bridge this gap.
The letter makes a strong case for the need for more widespread and effective public engagement if the promise of emerging science and technology is to be realized.
Underlining this, the letter opens with:
From the need to address climate change and improve public health to the impact of revolutionary advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, emerging science and technology has the potential to profoundly affect the lives of all Americans. While these innovations offer the promise of improved health, resilience, and sustainability, the American public also has concerns about societal impacts and ethical implications of scientific discoveries and technological innovations. In the context of such rapid scientific and technological change, the country has rarely faced a greater need for effective engagement among research and development (R&D) agencies, experts, and communities. As a nation we must strive to develop public policies that are informed by scientific understanding and community values. Achieving this goal will require both access to accurate and trusted scientific information and the ability to create dialogue and participatory engagement with the American people.
The emphasis here is mine. And it’s there because it marks a shift in emphasis from assuming that public value will naturally arise from science and technology, to realizing that this will only happen through intentional two-way engagement with key communities.
This is not a new idea. For decades now researchers have been studying and writing about the importance of public engagement in ensuring science and technology do more good than harm. (Here, it’s worth calling out Brian Wynn’s seminal 1995 article “May the Sheep Safely Gaze? …” as an example of just how long scholars and others have been studying this). Yet there remains deep resistance to listening to and learning from diverse communities and members of the public as new ideas lead to new research, development, and products.
Even as recently as a few months ago this was reflected in conversations around getting AI right, with claims that the technology is simply too complicated for non-experts to understand!
And yet, pushback against the importance of public engagement demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding around how to ensure science and technology serve people in a democratic society, and a very real risks of hubristically ignoring the very communities many scientists and technologists claim they are working to help.
I was reminded of this while editing this week’s episode of the Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future podcast. The episode’s based on chapter 10 of the book Films from the Future, and takes a deep and critical look at why public engagement is important, and the consequences of failing to take it seriously.
The chapter takes its inspiration from the 1951 movie The Man In The White Suit — a film that I strongly suggest everyone invested in the importance of public engagement and advanced technology transitions watch and learn from.
In the movie, a brilliant scientist played by a young Alec Guinness believes that they’ve discovered the answer to one of the world’s most pressing problems — clothes that regularly need washing and replacing! And the “answer”? A new textile that resists stains, is incredibly strong, and that seemingly lasts forever. The only problem is, Guinness’ scientist didn’t bother to ask anyone else if this is what they wanted.
Buoyed on by an assumption that what was good for him was good for society, Guinness’ character falls afoul of pretty much everyone around him — from developers and industrialists to labor unions, colleagues, and even his landlady. And his mistake? He forgot to engage with the people and communities he claimed he was working to benefit.
For anyone who is serious about ensuring science and technology benefit society I would strongly recommend reading the chapter (or listening to the podcast) — despite using a film as its jumping off point, it provides a timely perspective why public engagement is important, and the dangers of not taking it seriously.
Of course, this is just part of a larger landscape of initiatives that have not only been strong advocates for more effective public engagement around science and technology, but have been providing tools and approaches to do just this.
Here I would highlight a couple that are worth further attention. The first is the work that my colleagues at ASU (and elsewhere) do on Participatory Technology Assessment. This is an approach to public engagement that revolves around structured and informed dialogue and deliberation between experts and members of the public, and is highly effective in bringing public perspectives to making decisions around complex technologies. In fact it’s so effective that the PCAST letter highlights the successful use of the approach in policy and research aimed at protecting the planet from potentially devastating asteroid impacts.
The second is the area of Public Interest Technology, and a growing number of initiatives that are emerging around it — including the Public Interest technology University Network. Public Interest Technology is about putting people and society at the heart of decision making around emerging science and technology. Part of this means focusing on policies that actively promote the public interest rather than the just supporting the whims and profits of individuals and companies. But embedded in the concept is the importance of engaging with the public as a critical component of ensuring public value creation.
I’d also throw in a third example, and that’s the National Informal STEM Education Network, or NISE Net. NISE Net grew out of National Science Foundation funding for informal learning and engagement around nanotechnology, and has since become a transformative powerhouse of initiatives that leverage a massive network of science centers and museums to inform and engage with an incredibly wide array of communities on emerging science and technology. It’s an example of public engagement in practice that is worth taking a serious look at.
There are many more ways in which organizations and individuals are striving to incorporate public engagement into safe, responsible, and beneficial science and technology — including a growing number of people who take it on themselves to bridge the gap between experts and others through blogs, YouTube, social media, and many other channels. And yet, as I explore in the book chapter above, they all too often face an uphill struggle as the developers of new technologies tout the importance of public engagement in the abstract, but strenuously resist it in practice.
Hopefully the PCAST letter will help move the needle here — at least a little — because the bottom line is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to identify pathways to a better future without broad, sophisticated, and meaningful ways of engaging with the people who will be a part of building and living in this future!