Social Science

From Public Engagement to Engagement of Publics: Rethinking Models of Citizen Participation in Science Policy Decisions
Andrew R. Binder, Assistant Professor of Communication, North Carolina State University

How do existing public engagement frameworks measure up to the normative ideals of a democratic society? And how can they help (or hurt) consensus decisions on science policy? The empirical evidence from communication and public opinion research teaches us two main lessons not only about these pressing questions, but also about public opinion of science more generally. First, the social dynamics surrounding town-hall meetings can become potent political symbols—often taking on unintended meanings and connotations—in media and public discourse. The power and nature of these symbols has consequences for public opinion about controversial issues by inhibiting citizens from feeling that their voice matters in the decision process. And in consequence, decisions can be made based upon incomplete, biased, and unsystematic data. Second, we (as a society) need to gain a better understanding of how communication about science happens in real-world contexts. While there may be no such thing as a single, monolithic, and homogeneous “public,” neither do individuals make decisions about science and technology in a psychological vacuum. Rather, opinion and behavior emerge from within identifiable social clusters of individuals, each with distinctive communication patterns and opinion distributions. Embracing these two insights will allow us to entertain broader definitions of who these “publics” are, ultimately bringing us closer to democratic decisions on science policy issues that are representative of real public opinion.

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Social Science

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