BSE and the public’s role in public information on research
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy may not be the first landmark in research comms that springs to mind. Yet it was the Mad Cow disease – or more particularly the way the public got to learn about it and ‘understand’ the government’s beliefs about it – that led first to a revised view of how science is communicated and, more recently, to an encouraging shift in the way research in general might reach the public domain.
The recent history of the public understanding of research helps highlight the shift in communications practices away from one-way or top-down models, away from the spouting-out efforts or the buckshot techniques and towards something else. We have perhaps not quite reached that something else, but the ambition is for a maturing evolution of partner-focussed communicative exercises that are predicated on trust and participation.
The BSE example provides an example at the harder end of sciences. It is also an example of science that has a potentially universal health implication, which makes it of special general interest and ripe for a panic-spread. The passage of information from research – to lab-discovery – to test – to legal acceptance – to professional knowledge – to public knowledge is in many respects a very well trodden route. Those who needed to know got to know last – once the experts had got it all sorted and had had the chance to professionally shape their message.
This of course goes out of the window in a crisis. In a crisis, facts may be difficult to assert, sources uncertain and at the same time there is a sudden increased demand on knowledge, a pressure to deliver what clear cut answers research can (or cannot) provide.
From the latter 1990s, in the wake of the BSE saga, a failure of the knowledge transfer to a general public under crisis began to spark new efforts to understand how the public received their knowledge and who they trusted. In this particular case the government had an overly confident response to the crisis. The case became widely examined because of the government’s blithe assertion of authority status, the insistence on themselves as being in-the-know and able to make statements that should be unquestioned and implicitly trusted. Yet these statements belied great uncertainties and dangerous over-confidence in some ‘facts’. In the wake of this, the panic played out and the public felt far less confident in the information they had been given. Many began to fear the public had lost faith in the very people they once felt compelled to trust by the very fact that they had the most influential voice. If the public did not trust the scientists then who could they trust – the government? Apparently not.
The World Health Organisation eventually issued a report around the lessons to be learnt from the BSE scare on more general issues of risk communication. The report offers many sound statements on communications cultures, and is pitched to a world for whom mass media is changing massively. Released in 2006 it still rings with that fear as to how the public are prepared to accept the word of the truth-tellers and the willingness of audiences to listen to truths that have taken shape in institutional academic tanks.
“The bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) saga has made painfully evident the limitations of risk communication as a one-way avenue, where information to the public about the risks they face comes after critical policy decisions have already been made. In fact, communication has even been identified as one of the key elements of what went wrong and generated the loss of trust in government discourse… (vi)”
The report covers interestingly the relationship between information held by policy-makers and produced by scientists, how it is transferred to the lay-community and on what terms. Its alternatives represent a fundamental shift in attitude to communicating institutionally-fostered knowledge from academia. Sociologically sound, it recognises that, ‘Beliefs are not simply the result of linear knowledge acquisition’(42), and elaborates on the intricacies of how ideas become accepted. This includes an articulation of the need for more co-operative means to disseminate research knowledge: “many beliefs are the product of social interaction. The very act of voicing and discussing opinions leads to their development.” (42-3) As part of the broader anaylsis in the wake of the BSE crisis it recognises the limitations that come with treating communication as a “tertiary activity (after the scientific and policy stages)” and, with due warning, “illustrates the cost to public authorities of not adopting a more open and transparent dialogue with the public.” (2-3)
Concern is framed predominantly in the disappearance of trust in scientific expertise and rightly so. It is trust rather than simply information that is key. The ‘one-way avenue’ it describes has been a recognisable problem in approaches to wider communications from research institutions. The report suggests not only that science needs to regain its place in the popular mind as the speakers of the most acceptable truths. The trust it seeks to regain is one that relies on something more symbiotic. Acceptable truths become something brokered between those who want to know and those who have the means to information.
Yet the first steps were simple ones. In the early 2000s even advertising was reflecting a change in the confidence that science could instil. There had been a plethora of men in white coats that had advertised everything in the 90s from washing powder to skin cream to vacuum cleaners and toothpaste as having been tested in the laboratoire and containing unpronounceably confidence-boosting chemical terms. The preponderance of this kind of advert began to lessen slightly. At the same time, experts were flagging a need to regain public trust in the scientist, and this is exactly the action that was taken.
The government-funded public understanding of science had until then followed a rather different tack. Activity evolving from the 1985 Public Understanding of Science report, it had been largely concerned with outing the ignorance of the masses and re-programming them with the truths they should have had hard-wired.
J.Gregory writes informatively on this stage in the history of the public understanding of science in an article from 2000, available on Sci-dev. He considers the subtle relationships between science promotion and the public and recognises quite how blunt the assumptions had been: “The public-understanding-of-science movement in the UK has not spent much time articulating its own understanding of science: science is taken as given. Nor has the public been examined too closely — the assumption is that we all know who they are.” He goes on, quite rightly to question how far knowledge can equate to understanding and to what extent we can use the word ‘appreciation’.
This line of development should have far-reaching implications for the way we deal with researched shifts in knowledge. Too often institutions and individuals fall back on the horrible intuitive fallacy that if you tell loud enough then understanding will follow.
These early communicative assumptions were later recognised as a ‘deficit model.’ A fallacy that the public were simply ignorant of truths – aka science-led truths – that they should know. Gregory notes with neat irony: “The public did not score well. While they claimed to be very interested in science, levels of knowledge were poor: 70 per cent believed natural vitamins to be better than synthetic ones, and 30 per cent thought that humans and dinosaurs had co-existed. Over one third believed that the Sun circles round the Earth, and 46 per cent had no idea whether DNA was to do with stars, rocks, computers or living things [Evans, G.A. and J. Durant, J. The Relationship Between Knowledge and Attitudes in the Public Understanding of Science in Britain. Public Understanding of Science Vol. 4, pp.57-74, 1995.]”
As this ‘deficit’ began to be questioned there was, at the same time, a similar shift in other areas of education. Hadn’t teaching always been about clever teachers supplying the deficit of knowledge in as yet ignorant students. There was a large scale attempt to shift away from this clever-teachers-and-stupid-students at the core of the delivery model, and a return to something far more Socratic, despite the persistence in a formal lecture system as best proof that academics are giving their worth to student ears.
In order to underline the change in approach from ‘deficit to dialogue’ models, The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement was founded in 2008. In its history of itself, on the NCCPE history pdf, it recognises the new roles it might have and the departure from the harder sciences: “…initiatives in public understanding of science have been mainly initiatives in science communication: they have consisted of finding means to deliver scientific information to laypeople, and of training scientists on how to get their messages across.”
Accordingly there is a set of maxims that lead among other things to the examination of public engagement in the university sector. “Universities should build a central support function for PE, not as the place where PE happens, but as a resource for those that are carrying it out. Key functions should include: training; development of networking opportunities; use of space; marketing and communications.”
This work leads to the report Embedding public engagement in higher education: Final report of the national action research programme Burns, Squires et al 2011 itself adopting, presciently and leading by example, an “iterative and co-productive process.“
Again, although, the focus switches to the wider remit of HE rather than specifically research, there are the familiar lines of enquiry. “Debates emerged not only about what we meant by “engagement” but also about what was meant by the “public.” And, predictably but perhaps not ultimately helpfully, there is a recognition that the original model in the sciences will have alternatives in other disciplinary strands, as “a difference in how the public was perceived in scientific research compared to social scientific or arts based research.” While Public Engagement could have many interpretations it is knowledge development that is key and a ‘spectrum’ emerges with Academic knowledge production at one side, moving through transfer and exchange to Knowledge Co-generation at the far side. It recognises significant risk, reporting a dialogue that notes, “There is way more risk from dialogue and two-way exchange that there is to just go out there and stand in front as an expert.”
More recently there is advanced work from the research communities who have the strongest vested interest in collaborative methods. Here the movement towards knowledge exchange has evolved into knowledge mobilisation. What ensues is a genuine sensitivity to how communities gain from research. In Professor Hart’s words “Knowledge mobilisation explicitly attempts to combat power differentials between academics and community partners, and problematises knowledge power hierarchies.” [Hart et al in Social Science Journal] It is here that those best practices of co-created knowledge can emerge. As Facer and Enright state in their 2016 report for the AHRC, there is something expressly communicative in these new practices, a new vitality in what they have termed ‘substantive conversations’:
The Connected Communities Programme demonstrates that ‘public value’ from research is not about creating short term, instrumental partnerships in which universities offer quick evaluations or specialist inputs in exchange for communities offering access to a ‘real world’. Rather, it is about creating substantive conversations between the different sets of expertise and experience that university and community partners offer, and in so doing, enabling the core questions that both are asking to be reframed and challenged. Such a set of relationships is far from the naïve economic model that would see the value of research judged by its immediate utility. Instead, it is about the creation of a new public knowledge landscape [Facer, K & Enright, B 2016, Creating living knowledge: The Connected Communities Programme…]
Yet it is here that the assertion is made as to how universities best communicate, by allowing the ‘core questions’ to be asked by wider ranges and greater numbers of people, but also facilitating a joint response and a shared responsibility over the making of new truths and new knowledges. Communicating research becomes an aspect of a wider co-productive mechanism. “Most universities should be able to increase the numbers and scope of pioneering co-production projects which engage on more equal terms with non university stakeholders… Underpinning this thinking is a widespread belief that public engagement produces higher quality research, higher quality teaching and considerable benefits for society.”(Burns, Squires 8)