The BBC in collaboration with the British think tank Demos has launched a “national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society.” Brits are encouraged to participate in informal small group discussions organized independently, facilitated public events at science centres and other community spaces, or can be selected to participate in a formal “deliberative” panel that brings experts and citizens together to discuss issues of interest. The project features an online discussion pack aimed at informing participants.
The Science Horizons web site also includes a blog, where citizens can take their discussions online, and even makes use of “avatars” as pictured above. (Since the first blog post on Jan. 24, ten people have commented at the blog, and fifteen users have contributed across three threads at the discussion board. Hopefully traffic will increase.)
As a complement to survey research, quantitative media analysis, and other more representative ways of tracking public engagement, deliberative forum-type projects like Science Horizons can be a useful way to gather open-ended feedback from citizens about their views on government and industry initiatives.
(Indeed, we show in a forthcoming article in the journal the Public Understanding of Science that the tensions between qualitative researchers and survey researchers in the study of public perceptions of science is unnecessary and unproductive.)
Not only do forums make for an effective investigative method, but they are also great strategic communication tools. These types of projects portray sponsoring institutions as concerned with two-way dialogue. Much like Hillary Clinton in rolling out her Senate and presidential campaigns has promoted the image of a “listening tour,” holding town meeting-style forums may help soften polarization in views about controversial science.
Though studies show that the people most likely to show up for these events are the already politically involved, informed, and opinion intense, other research shows that if these same participants believe they have been heard or consulted, they are more likely to accept the final policy decision, even it runs against their initial preferences. Moreover, if there is enough media publicity surrounding the project, incidental exposure in combination with discussion among some citizens might trigger a motivation for more information in the news or online, subsequently leading to informal learning. Finally, borrowing from the work by Robert Putnam and others, these types of projects are a central way to connect national-level science and media organizations to local communities and citizens, forging relationships and trust that likely lead back to greater public support for the institutions.