Critical perspectives on public engagement in science and environmental risk – ESRC seminar series

The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in public engagement and participatory modes of governing science, technology and the environment, promoted by arguments that it enhances trust, acceptance, and the quality and social responsibility of science and decision-making. Most academic and practical effort in this field to date has been channelled into developing engagement methods and instrumental forms of evaluation to judge their effectiveness. Much less attention has been paid to developing critical studies of participation. While critical perspectives on the power, discourse and tyrannical potential of participation have existed in development studies and planning for some time, they have begun to emerge only relatively recently in disciplines more closely associated with public engagement in science and environmental risk, including science and technology studies (STS), geography, environmental science, and risk research. Work at the interface between these fields is beginning to focus attention on the construction, performance and framing of public engagement, and warns that participation is just as susceptible to problems of trust, legitimacy, framing effects, exclusion, closing down debate, and acting as a smokescreen behind which decision-making institutions can conduct ‘business as usual’. This field of research is in its infancy, however, lacking interdisciplinary coherence, and remains largely separated from the practical realities of participatory governance. This seminar series thus aimed to bring together an interdisciplinary range of social scientists, in collaboration with natural/physical scientists, participatory practitioners and policy-makers, to build a learning community and forge a new research agenda that is more constructively critical about the potentials and pitfalls of public engagement in science and environmental risk.

The Seminars

Critical studies of public engagement in science and the environment, Friday 24 April 2009, Birmingham (workshop report here)

Democracy, citizenship and anticipatory governance of science and technology, Tuesday 15 December 2009, Durham (workshop report here)

Natural hazards and critical public participation, Thursday 10 June 2010, UEA (workshop report here)

Participation, power and sustainable energy futures, Tuesday 26 October 2010, Sussex (workshop report here)

Critical participatory governance: connections, learning and reflection, Thursday 17 February 2011, London


The themes and questions explored in the seminar series include the following:

  • Meanings of ‘critical public engagement’. What do we mean by critical public engagement studies and practice?
  • Actor roles, relations and purposes. What are the roles, relations, and purposes of social scientists and other actors (scientists, policy makers, practitioners, publics) in participatory governance and how can these relations become more constructive?
  • The expertise and technologies of public participation. How do expertises and technologies of participation get made, produced, and mobilised, and what are the implications of professionalisation and commercialisation?
  • Framing. How is public engagement framed, controlled and governed and how does it construct various visions of science, democracy and ‘the public’?
  • Learning and reflection. To what extent are actors, institutions and wider systems of governance learning about and learning from public engagement and dialogue?
  • Understanding institutions. What are the patterns of diversity and complexity within and between institutions, and what does this mean for critical public engagement?
  • The importance of context and the issue in question. How do the prevailing (economic, political and cultural) contexts and the substance of the issue impact on, shape, and condition public engagement?

People involved:

Jason Chilvers
Matthew Kearnes
Jacquie Burgess
Andy Stirling
Judith Petts
Sigrid Stagl

Timescale: 2009-2011

Funded by: ESRC