What year is it in public engagement in science? 1832 perhaps?

I find myself on another train. This time, returning from Bristol where the ‘Engage’ conference – run by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) is being held. In a nutshell NCCPE brings together the university sector.

I was taking part in a morning workshop about what we have learnt from two decades of public engagement in health research. Each of the presenters was asked to speak for five minutes and set 2 or 3 provocative questions. Mine were as follows:

1. Should all research awards – no matter what discipline – be contingent on public involvement being a core component of the work to be done?

2. Do your leaders get it? Many senior researchers talk a lot about things like encouraging science literacy. But this feels more like the language of 19th Century missionaries before departing to spread the Christian faith in Africa and not fit for our times. Is it even a realistic goal given adult literacy levels. Sorry, that’s a bit of a tangent.

3. Do we really trust the public? For arguments sake I asked people to plot where ‘public engagement’ is against the timeline for universal suffrage.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 giving the vote to the urban middle-classes?

The Second or Third Reform Acts of 1867 or 1884 extending the vote to the urban male working class and then rural male working class respectively.

The Representation of the People Act in 1918 giving the vote to men over 21 and women over 30.

Or 1928 when all those over 21 received the vote or even 1969 when it was finally extended to 18 year olds.

I suggested that perhaps we had only just passed 1832 with public engagement a predominantly middle-class activity in terms of the doers and ‘done to.’ And some years of mass participation. But you may wish to differ.

If none of that seems controversial I apologise for failing you. But i hope that I have reminded you of some key dates in history at the very least.

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