There is a creeping sense of complacency within some sections of government and the scientific community: a belief that we can return to business as usual, with a few new committees and a little extra public consultation, but without any fundamental reform of scientific culture and practice. Participation tends to be invited on narrow ‘risk’ questions when the public are equally concerned about the wider social visions and values that are driving science and innovation. If public engagement is not taken seriously, we will end up with little more than the scientific equivalent of corporate social responsibility: a well-meaning, professionalised and busy field, propelled along by its own conferences and reports, but never quite impinging on fundamental practices, assumptions and cultures.
Disagreement and protest, as well as participation, are signs of a healthy democracy. This is not simply a matter of new language or better communication, but of issues of power, authority, justice and accountability. Recognising this complexity, and the conflicts it harbours, should not deter us from the project of developing shared approaches. Scientists should start to challenge the ends of politics, not just the means, and become ‘explorers’ who are commissioned by society to use their initiative and imagination in the search for better ways of doing things. This can remind scientists of the contribution that public values can make to the setting of research priorities and trajectories.
Science has major social benefits and thus ‘public value’. Yet crucially this value cannot be assumed and taken as automatic, no matter what scientific research is done, or under what conditions. We can ask: what is the public value of science? But also, what would public value science look like? Viewed through a public value lens, engagement might no longer be seen as a ‘brake on progress’, but instead as a way of maintaining and renewing the social contract that supports science.
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