Upstream engagement of blue skies research: is it possible?

Last week I was at a seminar lead by Dr Jack Stilgoe (Senior Policy Advisor to the Royal Society, formerly at the think tank Demos; the most recent profile I can find is here, or check twitter), based around the idea of upstream engagement of science. This isn’t a new idea by any means, but it’s one that’s taking time to pervade the world of science communication and policy. It’s based around the idea that dialogic communication between a communicator and a public can allow for improved understanding in both parties, but also goes one step further;  ‘by opening up innovation processes at an early stage […] we ensure that science contributes to the common good’ (See-through Science). Essentially, communicating ‘upstream’ lets the public ask questions – and shape answers – about important aspects of science: ‘Who owns it? Who benefits from it? To what purposes will it be directed?’ (again, See-through Science).

All well and good; it sounds like, and is, a great idea. Harriet, who was at the seminar with me, asked Jack Stilgoe whether upstream engagement could exist with blue skies research. Damn it, that throws a spanner in the works. How can you communicate upstream about science which – for all intents and purposes – has no tangible real-worlds application? Moreover, if scientists don’t know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, how does the public stand a hope in hell of having an intelligent conversation with them about it?

I’m not going to claim to be able to answer this; far from it, as there are people far better read than I who would no doubt toil over finding an answer. As I see it, though, there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, the lack of understanding in both parties could be seen as a leveller, as everyone involved comes to the table with a similar level of understanding and preconception about what will happen in the future – roughly none. We might even stretch this to suggest that, unlike the upstream engagement that has gone before, this is it in its purest form, allowing the public to actually shape the future of the technologies brought about by blue skies research. Certainly, we’ve seen in the past that engagement that comes too late doesn’t really help anyone (see GM Nation), so maybe this is exactly the scenario in which it can help.

Alternatively, there’s a school of thought that suggests that dialogue without understanding – be it in one or both of the parties – struggles to ever be truly meaningful (van der Sanden). Essentially, it’s difficult to have a conversation with someone that knows nothing about the topic; it’s even harder to have a conversation if neither person knows anything about the topic. This has, to some extent, been the case in discussion between scientists and the public around nanotechnology. Though some people have some fanciful ideas about what direction nanotech will take us in, nobody’s sure and, as a result, it’s been difficult to have a convincing dialogue about it.

I hope that the first suggestion is accurate, that upstream engagement with blue skies research could foster better understanding – and policy-shaping – than examples we’ve seen in the past. In truth, though, I suspect the sheer uncertainty muddies the picture so much that constructive engagement is difficult, if not impossible. Maybe we need to hold tight, if just for a short while, before communicating upstream about emerging science.

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