Universities have long promoted themselves as curators of specialist knowledge and expertise, but the ability to translate that deep academic know-how into solving everyday real-world problems has been limited at best. That isolationist academic culture is changing as ‘public engagement’, ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘impact’ gain recognition as valued parts of the academic skillset, encouraging researchers to connect with a range of external stakeholders, from local businesses and communities to the media and the wider pubic.
Despite universities encouraging their academics to ‘go public’, curiosity and self-interest still allow many researchers to pursue concerns far removed from what the UCL philosopher Nicholas Maxwell calls the ‘problems of living’. Indeed, most problems of living – notably those around climate action and environmental stewardship - are not so much specialist, technical issues as moral and aesthetic issues, mediated by values and beliefs and concerns over equity and justice. Communicating academic expertise in that gladiatorial public arena demands a new form of science-society engagement.
One solution that has emerged in recent years is the citizen assembly - a deliberative forum that brings together a diverse group of the public - selected at random but chosen to broadly reflect the demographics of the local community - to collectively interrogate complex societal issues and draw informed recommendations about what should be done. Adopting a “learn-hear-deliberate” format, citizen assemblies incorporate expert witnesses, public submissions and facilitated discussions, with scientific evidence from academic experts sharing the stage with personal testimonies from people’s lived experiences.
Researchers within the Sustainable Earth Institute are involved in two such public engagement experiments, both motivated by the current Climate Emergency. As members of the Devon Net-Zero Task Force, myself and Professor Ian Bailey help provide the expert underpinning for a county-wide citizen assembly that will take place in the Spring of 2021. Important lessons for that will come from my role as Communications Lead and Chair of the Evidence Group for the Scottish Climate Assembly, which sees 100 members of the public deliberate over six weekends of expert-informed hearings between November 2020 and March 2021.
It is too early to tell for sure, but this exciting new people-centred approach offers the promise of securing an evidence-led, scientifically-informed public mandate for collective action for one of our most complex and controversial societal challenges.
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