Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

Hurdles to Engaging Publics around Science and Technology

Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

Hurdles to Engaging Publics around Science and Technology

Article excerpt

Community/university relations have radically changed over the past two or three decades. Across the disciplines, students benefit from the chance to develop civic skills through coursework and internships; faculty are encouraged to design curricula and facilitate external initiatives with various publics; and academy doors are opening to citizens to foster collaborative, symbiotic relations. In the case of soci, this collaborative relationship between university and community is often referred to as 'public sociology' (Burowoy 2005). For land grant universities, Cooperative Extension services are also called upon to fill a broader citizen-centered mission where outreach, adult education, and public engagement are at the core of their work.

At the same time, American universities are demonstrating a commitment to partnering with industry to foster technological innovation and entrepreneurialism and to spur economic prosperity (Tuunainen and Knuuttila 2009). Commercial development of university-generated knowledge is strongly encouraged and is facilitated by technology transfer offices (Carlsson and Fridh 2002), industry-sponsored research (Lee 2000), and incubator and start-up business development (Gregorio and Shane 2003).

It may be accurate to describe these two approaches to public engagement as ships passing in the night. On the one hand, there are forces driving a civic engagement impulse inside universities that typically prioritize student learning, public service, and participatory democracy. On the other hand, other academic forces see engagement as an expression of market logic whereby public knowledge generated in the university is transformed into private goods and services in concert with actors outside the academy (Busch 2010; Glenna et al. 2015). Such diverse university/public partnerships are explored in a vast literature, yet little has been recorded on how best to engage communities and citizens on issues pertaining to science and technology.

The lack of articulation between participatory democracy impulses and science and technology applications is particularly troubling when science and technologies are emergent and unsettled. New technologies bring a host of challenges that complicate learning, adoption, dissemination, and participatory decision-making. Any planning effort to integrate emerging technologies into society is met with an army of unknowns, uncertainties, and value contests. As such, relatively little attention has been given to the question of how to weave these two domains together. Moreover, many public engagement professionals report (Eaton et al. 2014) having underdeveloped tools with which to engage their constituencies in any meaningful consideration of the issues surrounding emerging technologies.

In this article, we explore how community practitioners struggle in their everyday work to engage publics (i.e., all those who exist outside the academy) as deliberative partners in the process of learning and decision-making around emerging technologies. The unique nature of emerging technologies presents complicating factors that may stymie inclusivity, voice and representation. If publics are to be instrumental in effective university/community partnerships, engagement processes must be sufficiently reflexive to recognize how to avoid inadvertently marginalizing citizens so that democratic practices become the benchmark of engagement excellence.

Through a set of qualitative interviews, we query community practitioners to assess how emerging technologies affect-and confound-their work to facilitate democratic engagement processes. We hope to ignite a conversation about strategies with which to manage these challenges so that practitioners may more effectively fulfill their objectives without falling victim to the emergent and contested knowledge known to rife within emerging technologies. We begin by defining emerging technologies and by presenting a brief overview of the ways in which they may thwart effective public engagement. …

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