Why is there a social scientist in EUROPAH?

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com


I am the only ESR of the Europah network doing her PhD in social science. The question that usually comes next is “Why on Earth (and, incidentally, in space) would you need a social scientist to investigate the properties of carbon molecules?”. If I tell you that I am an educational researcher, you might have some clue. But let me clarify this a little bit more.



Before the 1950s, we used to think of science as only related to nature and untouched by social interactions and cultural context. It was not so common to see scientists going out of their laboratories in order to communicate about their work through books, talks or TV shows, and when they did, it was with the posture of authority of teachers lecturing their students.

As philosophy and sociology of science developed, it became clear that, in the process of constructing scientific knowledge, natural and social aspects couldn’t really be unravelled. As sciences and technologies became more and more central in modern societies, the first controversies about ethics and safety appeared. The idea that science and society should enter into a dialogue emerged, with an increased awareness about the importance for citizens to understand what was going on in science research and for researchers to hear insights from society and citizens.

It led to the idea that science researchers should engage with general public, not as a hobby or a sideline, but as a duty. And as this idea became more central, new forms of science communication arose: the public engagement in science was born, a whole movement  in favour of two-way dialogue rather than authoritative lecture.



There has been a lot of changes in how we see and how we make science communication. But despite all those changes, science and society dialogue is still not so smooth. Especially, we face a recurring problem: if there are more and more people participating in science activities, it is always more of the same categories of people: predominantly male, white, middle class people.

So, why is that? For a long time, science centres used to think about it in terms of barriers (people wouldn’t come because they didn’t have the money, because they were too far away) and in terms of deficit (people didn’t like science because they didn’t know enough about it). Recent research has made the hypothesis that the practices of science communication could actually be unwillingly exclusionary, bringing feelings of exclusion, misrepresentation and powerlessness among certain categories of people. It is not so often that we hear about female, black or working class scientists, is it?

So, here is what I am studying in EUROPAH: how does public engagement happen in this network? As I see science and society as entangled, I see the process of scientists engaging with publics as part of science research. I am not just observing the moments in which scientists and publics meet, but I am following the process of engagement all through the Europah project. Not only how it emerges but also what it generates, the changes it brings within the network, among researchers and institutions. And while following this process, I am paying a particular attention to how issues of inclusion and exclusion participate in it.

Very often, the research about public engagement in science focuses on controversial science topics or areas of research that are of direct concern for human health and/or environment (and often related to policy-making), with the idea that those topics are more likely to be of interest for ordinary citizens. But this is only a very small part of science research, and if we think that we, citizens, should know what is going on in “ordinary” science research, we should not be limited to controversial or policy-related areas.

So, this is one of the main contributions I wish to bring with my research: understanding how scientists’ engagement with publics is happening in everyday science research, and what does it change in it.

How do I do that? Well, be patient, it will be the object of another blog post…

In the mean time, if you want to read a little bit more about these topics, here are some useful references:

Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). “Science capital”: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 922–948. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21227

Bucchi, M., & Trench, B. (2014). Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203483794

Dawson, E. (2018). Reimagining publics and (non)participation: Exploring exclusion from science communication through the experiences of low-income, minority ethnic groups. Public Understanding of Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662517750072

Horst, M., & Michael, M. (2011). On the Shoulders of Idiots: Re-thinking Science Communication as “Event.” Science as Culture, 20(3), 283–306. https://doi.org/10.1080/09505431.2010.524199

This blog post was written by Laurene Cheilan.