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Trust brokers and confidence builders? The ambivalent role of the sociologist in the public engagement of science

Parry, S   Cunningham-Burley, S

Talking Biotechnology ... Reflecting on science in society

Wellington, New Zealand

November 29 – December 2 2005

With the ‘reflexive turn’, sociologists with an interest in science, technology and medicine may find themselves increasingly called upon to join interdisciplinary teams at the `cutting edge' of scientific developments. As scientists become anxious to be seen to be sensitive to public concerns and transparent about social and ethical issues, social scientists are increasingly involved in such collaborative research to explore the views held by `the public' and conduct engagement activities. The substantive and practical areas of public understanding of and engagement in science have a reasonably long history within the natural and medical sciences, as does the critique emergent from the social sciences (see Irwin & Wynne, 1996). However, recent cultural trends and institutional shifts have embedded both research on and activities within this area within the normative structure of `doing science, technology and medicine' at the start of the 21st century. And many a social scientist is part of this whole enterprise.

As debates about expertise, experience and legitimacy continue to shape theoretical developments in science and technology studies (see Collins & Evans, 2002), sociologists may also find themselves nurturing collaborative relationships for their own research purposes, thereby getting close to their subject matter (science, scientists and `publics'). However, the impetus for collaboration and the inclusion of social scientists in science projects and scientists in social science projects may come from different directions and shared agendas. The seemingly symmetrical motivations and interests between these two groups may mask very different expectations about roles, perspectives and outcomes.

In this paper we want to reflect on these issues, drawing on our specific experience of a collaborative three-year project, jointly funded by the ESRC and BBSRC (two of the UK research councils), as well as a critical engagement with theoretical developments in science and technology studies including the public engagement in science. The project `The Social Dynamics of Public Engagement in Stem Cell Research' aims: (i) to investigate views and concerns about stem cell research (SCR) and the social, cultural and ethical issues generated by stem cell research, and (ii) to explore the scope for increasing public engagement in the developing field by experimenting with and `testing' various engagement activities. Involved in this study are a range of groups from across the spectrum of Scottish society, including scientists working in the field of SCR, potential users of stem cell therapies and people from hard-to-reach, marginalised communities.

On the one hand, we have developed a shared agenda with the stem cell scientists we are collaborating with and have cooperation to develop more inclusive and challenging forms of public engagement. At the same time, however, aspects of this agenda (the promotion of public engagement in science) are the subject of our critical scrutiny, as is the problematisation of the science of SCR. Public engagement in SCR is thus both a topic for investigation in its own right, where issues such as the relationship between forms of engagement and constructions of expertise can be investigated, as well as a substantive resource on which we can draw to examine issues such as lay understandings and expectations of stem cell science, amongst other areas. In this way, we are often walking the tight rope of barely articulated shared agendas while stepping off to examine issues of immense sociological interest.

We will, therefore, discuss how we have tried to balance the normative and critical elements of our engagement in public engagement and collaborative research across the social and natural sciences. In particular, we will tease out how our conceptual and analytical commitments have shaped our methodological approach. For instance, we will outline the development and implementation of innovative public engagement activities which problematise conventional roles of `scientist-as-expert' and `public' as lacking expertise. Here, we will reflect on our constructivist approach to expertise and knowledge that guides our methodology and analysis. Throughout our paper, we will critically reflect on substantive aspects of the shared agenda of between scientists and social scientists, teasing out their implications for the social scientist involved in such collaborative studies in a highly controversial area of scientific development.


Collins, H. M., & Evans, R. (2002) The third wave of science studies: Studies of expertise and experience. Social Studies of Science, 32(2), 235-296.

Irwin, A. & Wynne, B. (1996) Misunderstanding science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.