Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 667–672

Publics in the Making: Mediating Different Methods of Engagement and the Publics These Construct

Commentary on: “Technologies of Democracy: Experiments and Demonstrations”


    • Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social PolicyUniversity of Nottingham

DOI: 10.1007/s11948-011-9312-0

Cite this article as:
Mohr, A. Sci Eng Ethics (2011) 17: 667. doi:10.1007/s11948-011-9312-0


The potential for public engagement to democratise science has come under increasing scrutiny amid concerns that conflicting motivations have led to confusion about what engagement means to those who mediate science and publics. This raises important yet relatively unexplored questions regarding how publics are constituted by different forms of engagement used by intermediary scholars and other actors. It is possible to identify at least two possible ‘rationalities of mediation’ that mobilise different versions of the public and the roles they are assumed to play, as ‘citizens’ or ‘users’, in discussions around technology. However, combinations of rationalities are found in practice and these have significant implications for the ‘new’ scientific democracy.


Public engagementDemocracyMediationDialogueElicitation

Critical perspectives on the nature of public engagement and its potential for democratising science are emergent in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) (Irwin 2006; Lezaun and Soneryd 2007; Stirling 2008). Within this ‘politics of talk’ (Irwin 2006) is recognition of a need to move beyond ‘mere advocacy of scientific democracy and towards a more considered treatment of the possible forms of such democracy and their implications for wider publics’ (Irwin 2001, p. 4). This has particular resonance for STS as many of us in the field act as mediators (Elam et al. 2007) between science and publics. Mediation may be directly enacted through roles such as organisers, facilitators, ‘expert’ speakers or evaluators around engagement activities, or it may be indirectly manifested through the various texts we produce about such events.

While this new mode of scientific governance represents a significant shift away from the deficit notion of ignorant publics and instead focuses on the constitution of empowered scientific citizens, ‘apparent tensions, shifts in emphasis and partial contradictions’ persist (Irwin 2006, p. 301). Within the STS community some have been critical of the motivations behind new experimental public forums: claiming that exercises in social or market research have been dressed up to resemble public experiments in the new democratic governance of science. In his paper ‘Technologies of Democracy: Experiments and Demonstrations’, Laurent (2011) identifies a number of potential tensions created by different public experiments used by scholarly experts and others who mediate science and publics around the issue of nanotechnology, and the particular publics these construct.

The question raised by Laurent (2011) regarding how publics are constituted by different forms of engagement promoted by different intermediary scholars and other actors is an important one. On the one hand, it is evident that different public, scientific, and policy actors continue to operate with very different understandings of public engagement, and of publics themselves. On the other hand, scholarly analysis of engagement processes have so far tended to focus on the levels of public involvement in science, ignoring their own role as influential actors in trying to bring science and publics together. Consequently, the significance of such mediators is relatively uncharted.1 To address these two shortcomings in engagement research, the role played by mediators in shaping publics needs to be explored.

Laurent distinguishes among different roles played by public engagement mediators and among their different conceptions of the publics they seek to construct. The NanoViv public debates and the Ile-de-France citizen conference engaged publics as active citizens in dialogues with scientists, industrialists and scholars about the aims and potential risks of nanotechnology to develop a range of recommendations, propositions or opinions. In contrast, the Ideas Laboratory constructed publics as passive ‘future users’ and aimed to elicit consumer preferences to inform the design of nanotechnology industrial applications through such ‘technologies of elicitation’ (Lezaun and Soneryd 2007) as focus groups.

Laurent’s modes or sites of scholarly intervention employ different rationalities of mediation (Elam et al. 2007) that aim to mobilise different versions of the public and the roles they are assumed to play in the discussions around innovation and its regulation: ‘to activate different parties in the government of their own affairs’ (Elam et al. 2007, p. 7). For instance, mediation by dialogue, is about incorporating the implicit assumptions values and visions—or ‘imaginaries’—of citizens in a dialogue aimed at shaping research and innovation trajectories (Macnaghten et al. 2005). By contrast, mediation by elicitation is about identifying user knowledge to adapt, customise or modify the products of innovation.

Mediation by dialogue is characterised by knowledge exchange involving a two-way dialogue between publics and experts where no clear solution exists. Experimental technologies such as public debates and citizen conferences assign an active role to citizens in framing the deliberations while expert frames and reasoning are opened to contestation by alternative forms of knowledge (both expert and lay). Publics as ‘citizens’ aim to be representative of a given population in order to create an ‘idealised citizenry’ (Elam et al. 2007). Heterogeneity of publics is sought to ensure the representation of a broad range of arguments and opinions.

Mediation by elicitation is essentially a knowledge gathering exercise. Technologies of elicitation, such as focus groups, have their foundations in social and market research (Morgan 1997). Thus they are not primarily a method for judging competing knowledge claims but aim to enhance public confidence in science and consumer confidence in its products. Focus groups are widely used by social scientists and are seen as particularly adaptive to eliciting the publics’ opinions on risk issues (Wynne 1993). Where engagement mediators construct publics as ‘users’ or ‘consumers’, this assumes a post hoc assessment of the public acceptability and potential uses of innovation. Often screened by market research companies to ensure similar backgrounds, ‘homogenous strangers’ (Morgan 1997) are brought together to facilitate ‘sensible recommendations’ based on a ‘rational discussion’ of the scientific facts (Laurent 2011).

Mediation by dialogue and mediation by elicitation both aim to produce public trust and confidence in science and/or its products, yet they imply different divisions of powers and responsibilities of the publics they engage. Publics constructed as ‘citizens’, for instance, imply a citizenry that should and can be actively engaged in some way with the process of scientific and technological change as opposed to publics constructed as ‘users’ whose identity is predominantly established through the passive medium of consumption (Barry 2000). This raises questions related to agency and the ability to effect a transformation either in the agent (empowerment) or their environment (social and technological change or policy impact). Thus it can be argued that the act of consumption cannot be equated with political agency.

Ideally, scholars who engage publics as ‘citizens’ differ from scholars who engage publics as ‘users’ in that they privilege no one particular type of public and do not try to restrict the information or knowledge flow. Constructing publics as ‘users’ may also be seen to be perpetuating an increasing socialisation of innovation—where public acceptance is seen as vital to successful innovation (Elam and Bertilsson 2002). Thus scholars who help smooth the way through potential conflicts and controversies can be said to be engaging in the ‘acceptance politics’ (Barben 2010) of technological development. In this sense, the ideal form of publics as ‘citizens’ is compromised by there being a clear desire among its mediators for a particular outcome: the acceptance of new technology. This represents a ‘closing down’ of the range of legitimate views and opportunities for democratic governance (Stirling 2008). Instead, participants are exploited and engagement is experienced as a form of information management: in essence, a public relations exercise (Beder 1999).

While engagement technologies employed by mediators may be designed and implemented with the objective of creating opportunities for publics to participate in producing a better technology (including nanotechnology), this does not exclude the possibility that mediation by dialogue may sometimes be underpinned by a rationality of elicitation. Indeed, the concept of the ‘hybrid forum’ (Callon et al. 1986) that influenced the design of the NanoViv debate series, led to their critique as communication strategy tools of nanotechnology proponents. This may also signify an instrumental use (i.e., to legitimise ex ante technical and policy decisions) of public engagement for substantive (i.e., to produce better end products) rather than normative (i.e., participation is good in itself) reasons (Fiorino 1990; Stirling 2008). Thus elicitation may also be disguised as dialogue. Conflicting motivations may simultaneously underpin experimental public forums (for instance, where elicitation is disguised or represented as dialogue) which can lead to confusion about what engagement means to those who mediate them and which can draw upon different conceptions of publics.

Previous analyses of public experiments reveal conflicting rationalities of engagement. For example, the steering committee of the 1999 Australian consensus conference on gene technology in the food chain conducted an internal evaluation focused on end-users after it failed to co-opt two social scientists as ‘agents of the steering committee’ to conduct an ‘independent’ evaluation (Mohr 2002, 2003). The evaluation was sponsored by the Grains Research and Development Corporation whose mission is to invest in R&D for the greatest benefit to its stakeholders—grain growers and the Australian Government. The steering committee, comprising representatives from academia (science, social science and humanities scholars), industry, government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media, included a key question in its evaluation in order to determine ‘the extent to which the outcomes are assisting the Australian agrifood industry towards achieving public acceptance of the science’ (Crombie and Ducker 2000, p. 1). While this conflicted with the underlying philosophy of consensus conferences to empower publics to gain an informed understanding, the terms of reference of the evaluation reveal that an underlying objective of the consensus conference was to persuade or manipulate public opinion towards endorsing industry’s goals and government policies on gene technology.

In 2008, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) sponsored a public dialogue on the science and the social and ethical issues of stem cell research in the United Kingdom. Involving a series of workshops across five locations, the public dialogue brought together 200 members of the public with a range of experts including scientists, clinicians, social scientists and ethicists. The dialogue report (BMRB 2008) amalgamated the public voices at the workshops with stakeholder views gathered separately through interviews and used to inform stimulus materials for the workshops. This raises some methodological questions that were explored in an independent evaluation of the public dialogue (Mohr et al. 2009) and which are recounted here. The integration of stakeholder and public voices was considered to be one of the strengths of the public dialogue’s methodology. In principle, such a framework could help elicit the implicit ethical assumptions of all positions, scientific and non-scientific, and provide a symmetrical footing for all parties to engage in dialogue with each other. In practice, this meant that a rich variety of perspectives found their way into the final report, but unfortunately, many of them were not explored at the public workshops. Rather than a symmetrical deliberation of different value commitments, the workshop discussions tended to be led more by the presentations from experts. Where feedback from stakeholders and publics differed, the distinctions and conflicts with minority views were not evident insofar as a single set of shared conclusions and recommendations were presented in the dialogue report.

Although billed as a ‘dialogue’ rather than ‘market research’, the public dialogue could be described in terms of a snapshot of findings about public attitudes. The dialogue report observed that a striking finding was the very high level of support amongst workshop participants and stakeholders for stem cell research. Although the report goes on to nuance this finding by outlining various ways in which support is conditional, subsequent press releases from the BBSRC and MRC focused on high public support as the headline message from the dialogue. In the course of this, the broader objectives stated for this exercise—creating an environment for sustaining dialogue on the subject, raising awareness amongst both scientists and members of the public of different views and uncertainties—appear to have been sidelined.

Whereas the dominant motivation behind each of these public experiments was mediation by dialogue and aimed to engage publics as ‘citizens’, in practice (and in part due to the constraints imposed by mediators), this was underpinned by a rationality of elicitation that engaged publics as potential future ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ to enhance public confidence in the products of science. Thus it is important to explore what is made public by differing rationalities of mediation. By employing ‘subjectifying technologies’ (Michael 1998) in differing ways, scholarly intermediaries construct particular sorts of publics with different freedoms, rights, duties and responsibilities in order to achieve different aims. Most importantly, combinations of rationalities of mediation are found in practice and this has significant implications for the ‘new’ scientific democracy.


One notable exception is the recent paper by Phil (Macnaghten et al. 2005), ‘Nanotechnology, governance, and public deliberation: what role for the social sciences’.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011