VoteGCSA is a project by science communication students at Imperial College wanting to address the question of whether the role of Government Chief Scientific Advisor should be democratised. It was aimed to engage the public with the issues surrounding science in government. In particular, we hoped to explore the conflict between democracy and expertise, contrast communication models, and explore the social and political context of science.
Since the 1980s, scientists have increasingly been trying to involve the public in their work, due to a perceived ‘crisis of trust’ in science and, in particular, science in government.
The Bodmer Report gave birth to the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ movement. It identified the need for scientists to communicate with the public and pass on scientific knowledge, because of science’s increasing presence in everyday life. In turn, it was hoped that a better public understanding of science would help to raise the quality of public and private decision making. While the report was hugely influential, Sturgis and Allum argue that it has since received criticism due to the ‘deficit model’ underpinning its core philosophy, and the fact that it doesn’t allow for public concerns or involvement.
Following the UK government’s mishandling of the BSE crisis in the 1990s, the House of Lords report and BSE Inquiry Report moved the science communication effort from increasing knowledge to increasing public engagement. The reports identified the need to rebuild public trust in science, and the way to do this was by increasing openness and transparency in scientific decision making, and by moving to a more two-way relationship between science and the public through dialogue. The reports also recognised the need for science to acknowledge its interaction with social and political factors (Irwin, 2009).
However, simply having any kind of dialogue doesn’t necessarily make for effective science communication. The idea of ‘upstream engagement’ was central to think-tank Demos’ See-through Science Report. The report argued that dialogue must happen early on in the debate for public opinion to be incorporated into the decision-making process, and for science to contribute to the common good. It also stressed the need for scientific decision makers to “seek out and take account of more diverse forms of social knowledge and intelligence,” an idea consistent with increasing contributions from lay expertise and citizen science projects.
Democratisation of expert and advisory roles?
According to Weinberg & Elliott, there have been significant challenges for reconciling scientific expertise with democratic governance as scientists are being called upon by policy makers and advisory committees to provide expertise in scientific issues within government. More recently, there has been increasing pressure to democratise scientific expertise, with these proposals aimed at encouraging dialogue between scientists, policy-makers and the public. Liberatore and Funtowicz believe that such proposals hope to avoid technocracy and to make sure democratic accountability is at the heart of scientific decision making.
Those who are reluctant to democratise scientific expertise are often critical of whether expertise can become more democratic. In a modern society dependent on scientific and technological advances, it becomes impossible to avoid expert advice as some members of the public will have specialised knowledge that others do not. However, using expertise isn’t fundamentally undemocratic, as long as the expert knowledge is transparent and accessible to the public. Weinberg & Elliott argue that structures need to be put in place to ensure the public understands the science, participates in discussions and holds the power to influence expert decisions.
But what would the consequences of the democratisation of expert and advisory roles be? In response to growing pressure for democratic reform of the House of Lords, a survey of 37 peers with research and academic expertise found that only six would stand in an election to keep their seat. This confirmed concerns that scientists, and other experts, were unwilling to participate in a political arena and convey their worth to the public.
The project: VoteGCSA
To tie in with the idea that science policy needs to be more open and transparent, we decided to run a mock election campaign for a scientific advisory position within government. We used an existing scientific position—the role of Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GSCA) currently held by Mark Walport.
Three candidates were chosen to represent different approaches to scientific advice in government: an academic scientist, a politician, and a social scientist. This enabled us to explore the interaction of science with political and social factors. Elements of the candidates’ communication styles echoed the three phases of public engagement identified above.
We provoked conversations on our own website, on Facebook and on Twitter, and an article about the campaign in Imperial College’s Felix was retweeted by several people in the science communication community including Alice Bell, Ehsan Masood, and the Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy, Robert Doubleday.
Although there is an emerging consensus to improve public participation in scientific research and policy, there is great difficulty in coming to an agreement on how to achieve this goal. As the politicisation of science continues, so will the calls for a democratisation of expertise, because it adds legitimacy to governmental policy if democratic procedures that consult the public are already in place, and it empowers citizens (Fischer, 2003). Hopefully, we have initiated a debate around this issue which will continue on beyond the project.
Fischer, F. (2003) ‘Expertise as hermeneutic and emancipatoric knowledge.’ In: Expertise and its Interface: The Tense Relationship of Science and Politics (Berlin: Sigma)
Irwin, A. (2009) ‘Moving forwards or in circles? Science communication and scientific governance in an age of innovation.’ In: Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age: Implications for Public Engagement and Popular Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Aamna Mohdin is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.