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Ruth Wooden The Principles of Public Engagement: At the Nexus of Science, Public Policy Influence, and Citizen Education YOU CANNOT BE A SCIENTIST W ITH O UT U N DE RSTANDING A N D ACCEPTING th e core principles of th e scientific m ethod—th e techniques for developing knowledge based on observable, em pirical, and m easur­ able evidence, and subject to laws ofreasoning. The scientific m ethod has an established, essential process involving the developm ent of hypotheses, testing hypotheses, rep etitio n to ensure dependable predictions o f future results, and the developm ent of theories to encom pass w hole dom ains o f inquiry to bind to g eth er specific hypotheses. An understanding o f the basics of th e process—prob­ lem description, prediction, control, and understanding covariation o f events, tim e-order relationships, and elim ination o f plausible relationships—is absolutely essential before g etting started w ith any specific line of inquiry. The same is true of engaging the public. Before one can answer the question, “W hat needs to be done now, and by w hom or by w hat institutions, in order to ensure that good science leads to good public policy that best serves the needs of the American public?” we need to understand the basic principles guiding the stages of public opinion formation. Before we can answer, “How can we change the current situRoundtable Discussion 1057 ation so that scientists and scientific findings have m ore influence?” we need to accept the principle that the scientific com m unity functions w ithin society, not the other way around. The scientific com m unity disregards the thinking of the public at its own peril. From clim ate change to genetically modified organisms, from stem cells and cloning to bioterrorism —these are all scientific issues, but nonscientists will be m aking big decisions about how they are addressed. All of these issues raise questions and values far beyond the laboratoiy th at the public m ust evaluate. The question is: W hat can scientists do to m ake the m ost of public deliberation? Good public policy should come by way of a political process where an engaged and knowledgeable public weighs in on policy, which in turn produces adequate funding for scientific research, high valua­ tion of scientific research in the formulation of government policy, and appropriate regulations. It is not possible for the practice of science to be completely unfettered from public opinion since scientific research m ust be accountable to contemporary concerns about values and ethics. Policymakers, the public, and the scientific com m unity have m utual interests in working through the issues together, but at present real engagem ent is almost entirely lacking. The scientific com m unity is forging ahead, hoping that it can avoid most, if not all, restrictions on its work and, until recently, assuming that its research would be accepted as the definitive word in policy formation. Policymakers are position­ ing themselves on politics and economics, and m any give science short shrift or use it only w hen it suits their established positions. And the public remains seriously disengaged and largely uninformed. W ithout a strong, inform ed public voice, decisionmakers are left rudderless—or worse, at the behest of special interests. The public has a right to come to judgm ent on the issues, but it also has an obligation to come to an understanding of them. Scientists speak frequently about the “science literacy” problem. “If only people knew more about science, then that would take care of the problem.” But the gap is not simply a “knowledge gap.” The public may feel that, while scientists have facts and statistics, they themselves 1058 social research have knowledge, real-world experience and understanding, and, yes, even a personal connection to and faith in the unknowable that gives them a different—but not inferior—perspective. The scientific com m unity should take the lead in bridging the gaps. Only real dialogue can achieve the goal of sound public judgm ent on scientific issues. Scientists should begin to do this by framing issues in ways that acknowledge scientific...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1057-1063
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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