At a time when demands for public engagement and public accountability are becoming more varied and commonplace, it is perhaps no surprise that arguments amongst academics and practitioners about what publics are (or should be) and how they can be engaged are intensifying. This new report, commissioned by Sciencewise and written by Alison Mohr, Sujatha Ramen and Beverley Gibbs (who are also part of the five-year Leverhulme-funded Science in Public Project, makes a valuable intervention into these debates. Not being a science-studies person myself, I appreciate learning more from this work about about how discussions about the public/publics are currently playing out in this field. I also follow the Making Science Public project with interest. This report intervenes in current debates about public engagement with science in fascinating ways. Being someone interested in the call-and-response dynamics of public processes, I will now watch to see how this report is received and responded to in the science communication field and beyond.
There now seems to be an increasingly lively conversation taking place across the science, social science and the arts and humanities fields about what is meant by ‘the public’ in public engagement. Rather than muddying the waters or distracting from ‘getting on with it’, this conversation about publics (along with the turn to more experimental forms of engagement that seems to accompany this) should be supported and fostered. This is not primarily because ‘best practice’ in this area is somehow lacking. It is rather because there are important disagreements in and across different settings and between different actors and organisations about what public engagement should mean and could or should do. Investing more in spaces of public discussion about public engagement (and investing more in experiments in practice) might therefore be seen, at least partly, as an investment in making these areas of debate more public. The process of relating different understandings and practices of public engagement can itself create a space of negotiation and possibility. However, these discussions are still likely to be contingent on and shaped by what resources are available, what publics turn up, as well as where and when these processes are enacted, just as is the case with any other engagement process. This timely report contributes to these as well as other lines of debate in this area. Not just by underlining and animating the complications of public engagement in new ways but also by opening out spaces for further investigation, new engagement experiments and more debate.