How scientific institutions still get engagement wrong: an example

Reading both Rick and Pete’s posts caused me to reflect on some questions that have been troubling me for some months, to do with the political nature of science communication and the incapacity of institutions to deal with this. What follows is a local example that has brought these issues into relief for me, so please forgive the parochial nature of this post (though this tension between the local and the global is another thing that we need to grapple with). Sorry also for going on a bit.

I work in London at Imperial College’s South Kensington campus, which sits at the heart of one of the wealthiest boroughs of one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Some years ago, the College acquired another campus, just a few miles to the west, also in the borough of Kensington but in a much poorer neighbourhood. A prominent part of the College’s redevelopment of the new site has been its initiatives to engage the local community with science.

As many of you may be aware, on the night of 14th June, Grenfell Tower, a tower block in this neighbourhood, burnt down. Dozens died, though the exact figure is still unknown. An inquiry has been launched into how inflammable new cladding had come to be fitted to the exterior of the building. Even as the fire was still burning, it became clear that a group of residents had long been concerned about the fire safety of the building, including the cladding system, and had urged the management company and the council to take action. They had been ignored.

On the day following the fire, Imperial College circulated the latest issue of a regular staff newsletter. The newsletter expressed the College’s concern for the residents of the tower and gave information about collection points for donations of clothes. This was as it should be, but I was struck by the juxtaposition of this statement with the opening item in the newsletter. This concerned the College’s new Societal Engagement Framework, which, the newsletter announced, would bring about “a step change in our approach to sharing the wonder of what we do here at Imperial”. This appeal to ‘wonder’ is a commonplace, from the 1930s pulp magazines like Wonder Stories and Tales of Wonder to the recent Wonders documentary series on BBC TV. Yet wonder invites a pose of passive appreciation, the sublime with the frisson of fear and angst subtracted. It hollows out from science the human struggles that create scientific knowledge and the frictious ambiguities with which that science enters the world.

The unfortunate juxtaposition of the appeal to wonder beside the smouldering remains of Grenfell Tower only served to highlight the vacuity of this approach. Engagement, the newsletter seemed to proclaim, is not about helping the poorest communities by providing the technical support that could enable them to be taken seriously, nor about listening to what such communities need from science, but about inviting them to pause in pliant adoration. It could be so different – I was reminded, for instance, of the radical scientists of the 1960s who worked with locals in another London borough to tackle the industrial pollution there. (Alice Bell has written a compelling account of this here:

So I read that staff newsletter and I did indeed wonder. I wondered whether an institution such as Imperial College would ever be prepared to call out, as an institution, vested interests that jeopardised public safety if it conflicted with the institution’s own interests. I wondered how those of us within such institutions should respond when their employer simultaneously makes rhetorical gestures to a devastated community whilst exhorting them to religious-like adoration. And I wondered what those of us in science communication can do to facilitate a more authentic – a more radical – engagement between science and public.

In fact, despite the strap line of its new policy, Imperial College has been working on imaginative initiatives for (and even with) the local community, including a community innovation space. The problem, then, is not so much with individual projects, or individual people, or even with individual institutions, but with the inability of institutions as institutions to cultivate authentic human relations that are shorn of institutional interests. Scientific institutions, including universities, are an integral part of global capitalism. They must raise money – from benefactors, government and industry, as well as in the global marketplace for teaching. (And, of course, we meet at Bellagio thanks to capitalist philanthropy of the first rank.) Science cannot speak about or act upon political issues (i.e. anything where there is an uneven distribution of power and interests) without itself being politicised; if it is of relevance to public debate, it is inevitably freighted with political implications. Yet to be open about this has the potential both to jeopardise institutional interests and to undermine the pretense of neutrality on which science’s authority is currently based.

So, some questions for Bellagio:

  1. Would it be more honest/authentic/responsible to politicise science rather than de-politicise it? If so, how? Are scientists sufficiently skilled in the political arena to act politically?
  2. Can top-down institutional initiatives ever achieve authentic engagement of this type? Would we even want them to?
  3. Can science remain authoritative if scientists (or science communicators) are open about its political embeddedness and their own political allegiances?
  4. How can the universalist aspirations of science mesh with the localist needs of actual communities?
  5. What do we mean by ‘best practice’ in science communication? Best practice for whom? The oil companies? The politicians who want to seduce us with promises of quick fixes?
  6. Is it possible to set out an agenda for science communication without also organising as a politically-aligned movement?
  7. Does ‘engagement’ that is really PR in (thin) disguise make things worse not better, diminishing trust in science rather than building it?
  8. Should we draw distinctions between scientific institutions, on the one hand, and the institution of science, on the other? If so, how can we convincingly disentangle the two? Or is there no meaningful sense in which contemporary science exists separate from the institutions that produce it?
  9. And finally, to what extent is any of this unique to science (or to science communication), or do we actually need to address much wider problems with the condition of modern democracy?

5 thoughts on “How scientific institutions still get engagement wrong: an example”

  1. Thanks, Felicity, for a really powerful post.
    One additional observation: Although many activist groups, both formal NGOs and informal community groups, engage in what we might recognize as science communication, few of those groups are part of the “public communication of science and technology” community. Their members don’t come to AAAS or EuroScience meetings; they tend to critique rather than be invited to participate in Royal Society or US National Academy reports; they don’t identify with other science communicators; and so on. From a research point of view, our relative ignorance of these groups impoverishes our understanding of science communication. From a practice point of view, as Felicity suggests, the lack of connection may limit the ability of science communication to address some kinds of injustices in the world.

  2. Thank you for writing this.
    During yesterday’s science communication lesson, my students discussed the danger of politicization of science topics and scientific authority (“academy” more generally is already considered “leftish” and therefore not trusted by many in my country). We talked about it in the context of climate change which is polarized according to party lines in the US by not (yet?) in Israel.
    I agree with my students that this is a very serious danger that we should avoid. I would not like to see fire safety becoming politicized because people feel that experts sacrifice their interests for the interests of other groups that they don’t like.
    Looking at the troubling figures on Drummond, Caitlin, and Baruch Fischhoff. “Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.36 (2017): 9587-9592. Makes this is very vivid.

  3. Thanks Felicity, that is a great post. It encapsulates many of my own concerns and presents them with a powerful concrete example. The sense of distancing between is palpable (not just distance between science and community but between aims and needs of science communication.

    What is interesting here (and in other discussions) is the question of whether the “politicisation” of science is a threat or an opportunity. I’m sure that will be a hot topic next week and I suspect it will reveal quite a serious dividing line between our various positions.

  4. Felicity’s post demonstrates the power of an example – no need to apologise for being local or parochial; the illustration makes the discussion more tangible.
    As it happens, I was reflecting in a related context on the case of Imperial College as a pioneer in science communication teaching but also a site of paradox. Their ‘Professor of Science and Society’ (a celebrity scientist, Robert Winston) appears as a performer on a television chat show shooting flames from gases. Truly, we can only wonder.
    Academic institutions are rarely homogeneous – or, if they are, we should mistrust them. We cannot expect them to act in entirely consistent ways. But we can, as members or observers of those institutions, point out the contradictions. ‘Societal engagement’ that is one-way broadcasting is just one of the more obvious ones.
    Those of us working in science communication, moving across and between disciplines, are in a privileged position to promote institutional self-awareness. Maybe that is one of our primary responsibilities, to be reflexive, and to facilitate others to be so. (I’m very interested to see Rhian Salmon et al’s paper on reflexivity; I remember Rhian coming to a seminar in 2015, saying “everybody is talking about reflexivity – how are we to make sense of it?”.)
    Science and its institutions are inevitably enmeshed in the political, so the question may not be, Do we seek (de-)politicisation?, but rather, How do we make sense (reflexively!) of, and work with, the political in science?
    Felicity’s questions are a great help to our discussion of these issues.

  5. Adding one point to this exciting thread, particularly with regard to Felicity’s question as to the challenges being ‘larger than just scicomm’ (“need to address much wider problems with the condition of modern democracy”):
    There s a global movement for “Communication for Social Change” (CFSC), which is one of the core elements of why and how we train our Science Communicators back home in our course. CFSC thinks beyond “information”, “engagement”, or even “co-creation” by adding Social Inclusion and Social Mobilisation to main objectives. Without any personal conflict of interest whatsoever, I may need to mention that this movement is also closely linked to the Rockefeller Foundation, and was therefore also mentioned early in our discussions with the funder of our conference.

    The work of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in rethinking education in societal contexts is also closely linked to this rationale.

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