Tools for Democracy and Dialogue in Science

Kristin: Here’s a question that we at Bridge8 keep coming back to time and time again:

Why do we do public science communication?

From the discussions we’ve had over the past few months and over the last two days at the Australian Science Communicators Conference, there are many reasons. However, one of the broadest reasons is to ensure we have a society that values the contribution of science to our lives and to the world we live in. And to achieve that would mean involving the whole of society in learning and appreciating more about science (Doesn’t it? – Keep reading if you’re okay with the hypothesis so far – otherwise skip and leave a comment.) Which leads us to the follow-up question:

If it’s the whole of society that’s important then how do we involve the whole of society in science?

One of the research tracks presented the experiences of several initiatives and studies into tools for democracy and dialogue in science.

1. Craig Cormick, National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS), DIISR.

Studies undertaken by the NETS Department (and DIIRD in Victoria) have segmented the public into groups based on their attitudes to science: the confident, the sceptical enthusiast, and the less confident (these groups may attend science-based events), as well as the indifferent and the distrustful. It is the question of how to engage the indifferent and the distrustful that requires different approaches to ensure activities are representative of the wider community.

Sometimes discussing science and technology first makes it difficult for people to engage. Yet when applications of science and technology are explored first, people are more able to articulate how it might impact them. This was also the basis of the design for AccessNano – applications, applications, applications!

Also (and science communicators can sometimes forget this), people don’t necessarily recall or value interactions with science and technology. Some of the people who have participated in NETS activities didn’t care about the science behind the technology, and they didn’t need expert references to gain their knowledge – they relied on friends or the media. These unengaged or disengaged groups have not been well researched, but understanding their different values and interests may improve their participation and representation in science activities.

2. Annie Harris, Queensland Government

Annie presented the NanoDialogues Pilot Project that was undertaken in Queensland. The aims of the project were to test out new techniques in public engagement and to learn more about community views and values around nanotechnology in QLD. These views would then be used to inform policy, R&D and communications strategies. The Nanodialogues used scenarios including health, environment, and defence to think through risks, benefits and social implications. They wanted the participants to express their hopes, dreams and concerns about the development of nano. Annie noted that the participants had an appetite for discussion and exploring the issues around nanotechnology, they wanted more opportunities, better access to balanced information, and expressed diverse views and values.

3. Cobi Smith, ANU

Cobi has conducted some research as part of her PhD on theory and evaluation of science communications. She took an audience poll which showed that most of us have run science engagement events, but that very few have published evaluations, few have spoken about what they wish to achieve prior to running an event, and even fewer used a purposeful recruitment strategy in attracting participants to their event. She suggested that in Australia we have a tendency to do heaps of science events, but we don’t access best practice. Furthermore, she wondered whether we do actually engage all Australians – or it just the same people again and again? From the discussion that followed I would expect there to be some follow-up in the type of evaluations we run in order to give us some data and inform best practice in the future.

4. Mandy Thoo, ANU

Finally Mandy’s research has been investigating whether blogs about autism and neurology provide a space for dialogue. She found that there was a range of people writing about autism including parents, educators, researchers, writers and self-identified autistic bloggers. She found that bloggers placed importance in the comments they received and that they learn from the discussion, especially in terms of communication practices such as describing issues with more clarity and finding out more about their audiences. And that readers pick up on factual errors and dubious papers and feed that back to the blogger. Her conclusions were that both readers and writers learn something in the interaction, so blogging was a useful space for dialogue.

So what have we learnt about engaging everyone?

First we need to do something! More events! No!

The first thing is to think more strategically about the following questions:

  • What is our objective we expect to fulfill through this activity?
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What do they need in terms of information and understanding of the science?
  • What do they want by joining in? (And this can be quite different from what we think they need.)
  • How can our audience inform us? What do we want to know from them?

And then we can suitably alter the approach and the framing of the activity to ensure that we are able to engage with a broader cross-section of the population on their terms.


  1. […] democracy in general, which was the focus of my session at the national ASC conference in February. Kristin Alford from Bridge8 blogged about the session in Canberra; it’s interesting to see what people take away from my talks! I […]

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