Engagement: A Buzzword with Energy

Science and buzzwords go together like Escherichia and coli and there is one buzzword that has really caught my attention of late; that is, the word engagement. During all my years in low orbit around science as a student, a researcher, a science communicator and fascinated groupie I only started to see this word in the science context quite recently.

One of the reasons it stands out for me is that I left science and moved into the arena of working with people – otherwise known as crossing the rubiks cubicon – quite some time ago, and now spend my professional life helping organisations engage their communities of interest around complex issues of policy, or difficult problems, or decision making. That is, I work in the field of community and stakeholder engagement.

Though I didn’t ever intend to get into this line of work I was drawn in this direction. At first glance it doesn’t seem as exciting as a life in science, spending the blissful days in faculty meetings and writing grant applications. Yet on reflection I know that the field of stakeholder engagement is built on foundations almost as solid as the edifice of science. It is built on the twin beliefs that people have a right to have a say on issues that will affect them, and that each of us, when given the opportunity and support, has the capacity to take on board and process complex information and provide thoughtful, considered advice.

These twin beliefs appear to be finding favour within the scientific field. If the past decade or two were about communicating science with the public, during the next decade or two science will continue to learn to listen to the public. I think this trend is unstoppable and smart governments and institutions are already responding.

In Europe and the UK in particular the tide has definitely turned and the list of engagement or public dialogue projects grows apace. The issues considered by everyday citizens include those as complex and problematic as energy generation and efficiency, biotech, nanotech, nuclear power, health care, climate change to name a few.

Many of the events in which the populace provided scientists and policy makers with useful input built their success around the three essential components of deliberation, representation and influence. A deliberative process gives participants good data and the time the explore it and think about it. A representative process ensures all affected stakeholders are represented, or at least have an equal opportunity to be represented. This is often achieved through random selection. The third component requires us to clearly define how much influence participants are going to have over the ultimate decision or policy. Engagement doesn’t give participants the right to make decisions, but a good process will let them know the extent to which they have influence and precisely what they have influence over.

While science works hard to develop renewable energy it is in fact the stakeholder engagement field that has discovered the greatest endlessly renewable energy resource of all, and that is the discretionary energy each of us has to invest in issues that interest us. By tapping into that energy good engagement helps scientists and policy makers make better informed, better owned and understood decisions about the wicked problems that face us as societies. I’m very excited about the possibilities. I find the whole conversation about engagement in science very… well… engaging.

Stuart Waters

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