STS and democracy co-produced? The making of public dialogue as a technology of participation

Helen Pallett and Jason Chilvers

Democracy has long been studied and theorised in science and technology studies (STS) in relation to technoscience (Ezrahi 1990; Latour 1993; Jasanoff 2004). However, a growing body of work treats democracy and participation as objects of study and experimental interventions in their own right (Laurent 2017; Chilvers and Kearnes 2016; Lezaun et al. 2017; Voss and Freeman 2016). In this chapter we seek to make to two contributions to these ‘co-productionist1 STS engagements with democracy and democratic situations.

The first is to demonstrate how STS can take democracy – specifically, approaches to public participation – as an object of study in its own right. In doing so we focus on participatory forms of democracy that have emerged in response or in relation to representative and neoliberal democratic arrangements. We do this by tracing the democratic situation in which ‘public dialogue’ – a model of public participation based on deliberative workshops involving citizens and experts working towards consensus – became established as a dominant mode of public engagement with science policy in Britain. For more than 15 years public dialogue has been promoted and supported by the UK government-funded body Sciencewise as a way of democratising science policy. Through our account we trace the emergence, construction, institutionalisation and waning of British public dialogue as a ‘technology of participation’ (see Lezaun and Soneryd 2007; Laurent 2011; Chilvers and Kearnes 2016; Voss and Amelung 2017).

Second, we aim to situate the field of STS as part of, rather than apart from, crucial constitutional shifts in democracies (see Jasanoff 2011) and remain attentive to the role played by STS knowledges and concepts ‘in the wild’ (see Callon et al. 2009). In doing this we suggest that in democratic societies STS – or any other (inter)discipline, for that matter – is always co-produced with democracy. This necessitates humility and reflexivity on the part of STS scholars, to acknowledge both the deep influence of democratic practices and systems on our knowledge-making, but also to recognise the role played by STS theories and knowledges in the empirical sites and contexts we study. These insights force us to question the apparent uniqueness of the findings and arguments of STS, and to consider and anticipate the broader effects of our ideas and interventions.

Existing studies of technologies of participation have taken classic STS questions on the portability, circulation and mobility of the technosciences (Latour 1987) to consider how particular public participation methods and democratic innovations move from localised practices to become technologised and circulate transnationally (Voss and Amelung 2016), or how they become established in a particular democratic setting and then travel to be replicated and reperformed in another political culture (Soneryd 2016). Our analysis of UK public dialogue offers an altogether different view into the dynamics through which technologies of participation form, circulate and become established across cultures. Rather than focus on the innovation journey of a single technology of participation, our case reveals how multiple established technologies of participation and their associated expert communities (Chilvers 2008) – including STS scholars – intermingled to form a composite technology of participation at a key constitutional moment in British political culture and within the specific organisational setting of Sciencewise.

Through this case we show how particular democratic situations matter to the formation, standardisation, effects and threats to any one technology of participation – through their relations with other (often competing) democratic innovations, institutional settings and longer-standing constitutional relations between citizens, science and the state. We narrate the story of the development and effects of public dialogue as a technology of participation through two key moments: the first being the construction and formalisation of public dialogue as a standardised approach to public engagement in science policy-making in the mid to late 2000s, linked to the formation and institutionalisation of Sciencewise (Chilvers 2013) and the broader political dynamics of the moment; and the second being the challenging of this deliberative model in the 2010s with the emergence of alternative democratic innovations and imaginaries, and the subsequent broadening of approaches to public dialogue in UK science policy (Pallett 2018). For each of these moments we describe the status of public dialogue, the broader constitutional shifts related to it and the dominant participatory democratic imaginary within relevant STS work at the time, in order to illustrate our argument about the co-production of STS and democracy.2

Our argument about co-production is not only that the study of democratic politics has been at the heart of crucial developments in STS, but that developments in parts of the STS field and the ‘real world’ practices and structures of democracy can be considered to be co-produced or co-constitutive of one another. In our analysis we show how the two aforementioned key moments in the development of British public dialogue coincide with and are closely intertwined with both broader constitutional developments in British democracy and also democracy as an object of enquiry and imagination in STS itself. In other words, we are calling out – in a partial and situated way – the democratic situations with/in STS.

Throughout this story of the making and unmaking of public dialogue, STS scholars take up diverse positions and roles as analysts, ethnographers, theorists, methodologists, facilitators, consultants, advisors, distant critics and so on (see Chilvers 2013). However, it is not as simple as saying STS is present and thus implicated and entangled in the co-production of British science and democracy. Clearly there are important instances where STS scholars acted as forerunners, making instrumental and normative interventions that offered new models of two-way dialogue and upstream engagement (e.g., Rowe and Frewer 2000; Wilsdon and Willis 2004). We also see STS scholars and others engaging with the democratic situation of public dialogue ‘after the event’ in more critical or interpretive modes of intervention (see Irwin et al. 2013). Our main point, though, is that STS does not come before or after – but is always with – democracy, even though STS scholars sometimes present themselves as being distant and removed from the democratic situations they study. This alerts us to how STS is shaped by and responds to much larger shifts and constitutional developments in science and democracy, while also forcing reflexive consideration of the democratic constitutions of STS itself, in terms of imagined forms of democracy which become prevalent (but often tacit) assumptions at different times and places in the field’s development.

Both of the present chapter authors have through various projects conducted extensive semi-structured interviews with most of the main actors involved in the setting up and running of the Sciencewise programme, and analysed relevant documents (Chilvers 2010, 2017; Chilvers and Macnaghten 2011; Pallett and Chilvers 2013; Pallett 2018). We draw on some of this data in the following account.

The formation of public dialogue

Public dialogue was formally adopted as a practice of UK science policy and proceduralised from 2004 onwards, with the creation of the Sciencewise-ERC (Expert Resource Centre) as an arm’s length government body to promote and support greater public involvement in science policy- making. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology’s Science and Society report (2000) was the first to make explicit use of the term ‘public dialogue’ with reference to approaches of deliberative public engagement and consultation (including the techniques of consensus conferences, citizens’ juries and stakeholder dialogues), stating that ‘direct dialogue with the public should move from being an optional add-on to science-based policy making […] and should become a normal and integral part of the process’. The British STS scholar Brian Wynne, who had been a prominent critic of the Public Understanding of Science programme pursued by the Government in the 1980s and 1990s, was involved as a key expert witness in the creation of this report. Gary Kass, a civil servant at the time, was a key interlocutor behind the scenes of the creation of this report and acted as an ally of Wynne. During a subsequent secondment at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) Kass reiterated this message and promoted deliberative public dialogue through further reports (POST 2001; 2002). At the same time, both James Wilsdon and Jack Stilgoe, former PhD students in the STS department at University College London, were working at the left-wing think tank Demos, and authored a series of pamphlets advocating deliberative public dialogue at the heart of science policy. A number of these pamphlets were co-authored with STS scholars (e.g., Kearnes et al. 2006).

In 2004 Kass helped to draft the 2004–2014 Science and Innovation Investment Framework, which resulted in the creation of Sciencewise. The contract to run the new body was awarded to AEA technology, the former atomic energy authority (now a private body and a commonly used government contractor). To make up for AEA’s lack of specific expertise in deliberative public engagement, a number of freelance engagement practitioners were brought in to help manage public dialogue projects. Many of these expert practitioners had previously worked on supporting a stakeholder dialogue model of engagement at the Environment Council, which had a strong reputation for resolving high-profile environmental controversies (see Grolin 1999). Thus, they had expertise in running deliberative processes, but little direct experience with public engagement. Some of the early practitioners involved in Sciencewise also had connections to the academic field of STS through graduate study or working as researchers. This new concept of ‘public dialogue’ represented a hybridisation of the two previously distinct models of public deliberation – namely, the consensus conferences being developed and used by the Danish Board of Technology at the time – and stakeholder dialogue – as developed by conflict resolution organisations like the Environment Council (Chilvers 2017).

Initially the Sciencewise programme funded and supported some very experimental practices of public engagement covering a wide range of formats. These included a card-based discussion game which could be used to facilitate conversations about climate change in diverse contexts, to feed into a 2003 White Paper on energy policy (Pallett and Chilvers 2013). However, in the period from 2006 onwards, after Sciencewise was formally relaunched as an ‘Expert Resource Centre’, ‘public dialogue’ was more clearly formatted as a more prescriptive technology of participation as the organisation of Sciencewise and actor roles within it also became increasingly formalised. Reflecting on how UK public dialogue developed after this initial period, interview participants described the stabilisation of a clear model of public dialogue after 2005. This took the form of an invited ‘mini-public’ deliberation model where small groups of publics reflecting key demographic characteristics are enrolled as ‘innocent citizens’ with little prior interest in or knowledge of the issues under discussion (see Irwin 2006; Lezaun and Soneryd 2007).

A particular definition of public dialogue was agreed on and formalised by the Sciencewise steering group – comprising representatives from government, industry, participatory practice and academia (including STS scholars) – and was stated in published guidance as:

a two-way conversation with members of the public, to inform […] decision-making on science and technology issues […] [It] is a process during which members of the public interact with scientists, stakeholders and policy makers to deliberate on issues likely to be important in future policies (Sciencewise-ERC 2009).

The institutionalisation of public dialogue

A series of devices and procedures became established within the organisation – including best practice guidelines and principles, evaluation frameworks and methodological toolkits – which served to inscribe and codify this particular definition of public dialogue and the formats, configurations and skills necessary to realise public dialogue as a technology of participation (Chilvers 2017). In the words of a participatory practitioner in a social research company, Sciencewise began to ‘mainstream all this a bit more effectively’ and sought to grow and promote ‘best practice’ in public dialogue. The Sciencewise model was further inscribed through training courses, mentoring schemes and knowledge exchange mechanisms, including a web-based knowledge hub (Chilvers 2013). Sciencewise’s Dialogue and Engagement Specialists – the programme’s expert practitioners – worked to ensure that the organisations commissioning and undertaking public dialogue projects followed the ‘script’ (Warburton 2010).

Another element of this formatting and proceduralisation of public dialogue was its increasing professionalisation (see Chilvers 2008). Where initially independent facilitators and smaller groups, including charities and academic social scientists, had taken on mediator roles in the development of UK public dialogue, many interview participants noted that the field had latterly become increasingly ‘captured’ by larger consultancy and market research companies, such as the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB), Ipsos-MORI and Opinion Leader Research (OLR). Such companies were able to take advantage of the introduction of framework contracts by UK government departments and agencies – recognised lists of organisations deemed qualified to bid for contracts to undertake Sciencewise dialogues – and build on their already close ties to government and long track records in providing evidence of public opinion. There was a sense that such mechanisms served to privilege the so-called ‘big players’, which ‘obliterated all the rest of the range of different approaches’ (Participatory practitioner, independent consultant), further stabilising networks around a specific version of Sciencewise public dialogue (Chilvers 2017).

Since its inception in 2004 Sciencewise has supported the orchestration of more than 30 public dialogue processes around pressing issues in British science policy, including climate change, flood risk, gene science and biodiversity. The efficacy of these attempts to codify and institutionalise a specific Sciencewise technology of public dialogue was reflected across most dialogue projects co-sponsored by the organisation between 2005 and 2010. Ten of the 13 public dialogues active in this period closely replicated this model by enrolling lay public participants who interacted with expert witnesses in small-group deliberative events, each held in different regions across the UK, which were subsequently all brought together in a final workshop at a central UK location (see Chilvers 2010, 2017; Macnaghten and Chilvers 2014; Warburton 2010). Many of these processes have had concrete and traceable impacts on policy decisions – in apparent contrast to the otherwise similar case discussed in Krabbenborg (this volume) – such as the change to the regulation of research involving animals in 2014, the decision in 2010 to fund more than 50 ‘low carbon communities’ in support of the community energy movement, and the decision to allow the creation of so-called ‘three-parent’ children using mitochondrial DNA in a limited number of circumstances. Public dialogue has also in a more general sense been an important front in advancing the formal means through which citizens can engage with government processes and decisions, and has become a model which has been used by research councils and other government agencies such as local authorities, the devolved parliaments and bodies including the National Health Service.

Sheila Jasanoff has pioneered the study of the relationship between science and democracy at a constitutional level and has made the UK one of her primary study sites. Through this work she has identified nationally specific institutional structures, styles of reasoning and modes of public knowledge-making which are associated with very different configurations of the relationship between science, citizens and the state. She has characterised the UK’s civic epistemology as ‘communitarian’, with embodied service-based styles of public knowledge-making and a relational understanding of public accountability (Jasanoff 2005). This is particularly characterised by a respect for long-serving expert voices, and a preference for empirical demonstrations of a fact in order for it to be believed (ibid).

However, the 1990s saw a number of important ruptures in this configuration, opening up the possibility of what Jasanoff refers to as a ‘constitutional moment’ (Jasanoff 2011) where the relationship between science, citizens and the state may change. One significant factor in this moment was the coincidence of a number of major and high-profile failures of public science advice, such as the government response to the BSE (‘Mad Cow Disease’) crisis. Increasing public protest around the government’s policies towards nuclear power and specific siting decisions also increasingly challenged the default ‘Decide-Announce-Defend’ approach of much infrastructure and technology policy. These crises were judged to have damaged public trust in key policy-makers and formerly respected government experts, and were perceived as a threat to the science and technology-led progress successive governments bombastically pursued. The shift from the established model of Public Understanding of Science (PUS) which had been pursued from the mid- 1980s (Miller 2001) towards a more dialogic model of public engagement can be read as a response to these ruptures and the constitutional moment which emerged.

In parallel with public dialogue’s standardisation as a technology of participation, there were broader constitutional shifts in the UK which help to explain its broad take-up and popularity. In 1997 the UK voted in a ‘New Labour’ government which was in power for 13 years, heralding the start of a more conciliatory and dialogue-based approach, which has been labelled ‘third way’ politics. Some of the key actors behind this political approach, such as Charlie Leadbetter and Geoff Mulgan (who founded Demos), as well as the sociologist Anthony Giddens, had long been calling for forms of deliberative democracy to be part of government, and they subsequently became important figures in this new government (Thorpe 2010). They had reportedly used focus group methodologies widely during the 1997 election campaign. In this context the STS scholars who advocated and developed deliberative technologies of participation can be seen as responding to and forming part of a movement which saw expanded participation as a necessary response to greater social and economic prosperity and freedom and wanted to foster a more active and engaged citizenry (Thorpe 2010). This meant that by the early 2000s there were many actors in government who were sympathetic to arguments for the greater dialogic involvement of citizens in policy-making (ibid).

Another aspect of this so-called ‘third way politics’, pursued by Giddens and Leadbetter at the heart of the New Labour project, was the attempt to import elements of the Nordic model of social democracy into a UK context, drawing on its longer history of active inclusion of interest organisations in policy-making (Thorpe 2010). By 2000 deliberative modes of public engagement were already embedded in Danish science policy, particularly in the Danish Board of Technology, which was continually cited in British policy documents calling for two-way dialogue. The Danish STS scholar Maja Horst and British STS scholar Alan Irwin have situated this Danish approach to deliberation and the common good within a broader European move towards consensus politics (Horst and Irwin 2010). They argue that the move towards consensus was an important institution- and nation-building strategy (ibid.), which again indicates that such moves transcend the influence of the field of STS and its allies.

This decidedly deliberative participatory democratic imaginary of both public dialogue and the broader politics of the time was reflected in the work of many British STS scholars. While public understanding and opinion surveys remained a popular methodology, deliberative processes were increasingly adopted in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of public values and concerns – either as a complement to surveys or instead of them. Much published STS work from this time either uses these methodologies to generate arguments about the governance of science and technology and lay knowledges, or reports on and evaluates deliberative processes orchestrated by policy-makers, museums and other actors. The criticism of the Public Understanding of Science project (e.g., Wynne 1991) led many scholars to import ideal type models of participatory democracy from political theory into STS, to offer new frameworks for democratising science. This coincided with deliberative and dialogic models of democracy becoming a predominant democratic imagination in parts of STS (de Vries 2007; Marres and Lezaun 2011). For example, this was reflected in the large uptake of Rowe and Frewer’s (2000) paper on evaluating public participation processes, which at the time of writing remains the most frequently cited paper ever published in the foundational STS journal Science, Technology and Human Values. Beyond STS work which dealt primarily with questions of public and democratic engagement, this deliberative participatory democratic imaginary was evident more broadly in that deliberative methods became the default recommendation for a much wider group of scholars when making arguments about how to better account for public values and concerns in science and technology governance.

Beyond public dialogue

However, even by 2010 there was recognition among many working in and around the Sciencewise programme that the standardisation of the model of public dialogue might have some negative consequences. The 2010 programme evaluation states:

concerns are raised in the study about the rigidity of the way the model has been delivered and suggestions made for greater flexibility to allow for more creative dialogue that allows for greater collaborative working between the public, policy makers and expertise (Warburton 2010).

In a 2009 interview, one academic social scientist involved in the Sciencewise programme noted the danger of ignoring other forms of public engagement in policy processes and decisions, such as the open-source movement and other more informal citizen engagements around science, as ‘I think science itself is a moving target in some of these areas’. The interviewee also noted that the emphasis placed on engaging innocent and disinterested citizens in public dialogue processes could be problematic, because ‘[what] you’re going to find is more and more special interest groups getting involved in science, whether we ask them to or not and you see this with patient groups getting involved in medical research, you see it with the synthetic biology community who are trying to do the same thing, you see it […] in computing with Open Source’. This social scientist concluded that the continual exclusion of such groups due to ‘the constant desire to search for the disinterested public […] could be quite harmful’.

During the 2012–2015 phase of the Sciencewise programme the British Science Association (BSA) and the ‘think and do tank’ Involve were brought in to help with the day-to-day running of the programme. Both organisations had longstanding engagement with STS scholarship and scholars, particularly through their directors at the time, Sir Roland Jackson and Simon Burall respectively. Through his work at the BSA and the Nuffield Foundation, Jackson had long been an important interlocutor and figurehead for the arguments put forward by British STS. The involvement of these organisations and individuals in the running of the programme promoted greater engagement with STS scholars, including commissioning leadership work from the STS community and allowing one of the present authors (Pallett) to carry out her PhD research on the programme.

During this period the definition and practice of public dialogue became considerably more flexible, and there were signs that Sciencewise and its partners were more open to experimenting with alternative approaches to public engagement or testing variations to the public dialogue model. A good example of this is the Bioenergy Distributed Dialogue, carried out in 2013, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) with Sciencewise support, and building on many earlier collaborations. Like earlier public dialogues the project was organised around a policy-relevant topic and aimed to bring together experts and lay publics. However, the BBSRC wanted to create a more flexible model for this dialogue so that it could be taken up by scientists or community groups in a more DIY fashion, so that the dialogue resources could be periodically updated with new research findings and the outputs of the dialogues in turn feed into the strategic direction of the BBSRC (see Pallett 2018). This required some compromises to be made against the ‘gold standard’ of public dialogue, as the workshop sessions were made shorter so as to be more accessible, the resources were distilled into a card deck so that baseline information about bioenergy could be easily understood without expert interlocutors, and some of the sessions were carried out without expert facilitators. These changes met with some resistance, but the dialogue project was eventually held up as an important innovation and a Sciencewise success story.

Following a year-long reflective process for the programme using a ‘theory of change’ framework, in 2014 actors involved in running the Sciencewise programme reformulated its stated aim from increasing the effectiveness and use of public dialogue in government – as it had been since the 2006 relaunch – to the ambition that all decision-making involving science and technology should take public voices into account (see Pallett 2018). This can be seen as the symbolic culmination of moves to transcend the standardised model of public dialogue.

A participation practitioner from the Sciencewise programme also pointed to developments outside the programme as an important stimulus for the opening up of the model of public dialogue after 2012, stating:

we’ve got lots of new approaches coming in and new, much more marketing focused, investing in data mining kind of approaches… really interesting, very, very new and different stuff. The dialogue community, we’ve been quite reactionary to that I think and quite protective of what we do …Head Shift, they’re looking at data mining techniques to understand where people have natural deliberative conversations on the internet and getting information from there, rather than having to start a new event. So I think there’s things like that, that are moving the field on and thinking about it from a different perspective.

This emergence of novel social media and data mining-based approaches to synthesise public perspectives can be seen as part of the unsettling of the more STS-infused public dialogue approach. The new approaches promised to be both quicker and cheaper whilst also resting on deep-seated assumptions about the neutrality of numerical and machine-based approaches (see Porter 1995). Other prominent social science approaches used in policy-making which, like public dialogue, had emerged in the 2000s such as ‘nudge’ behavioural economics (see Pallett and Chilvers 2013) were arguably better-suited to accommodate these technological developments.

At this time there were also broader constitutional shifts afoot which threatened the dominance of a deliberative consensual model of engagement. 2010 marked a change of government and the start of a period of austerity governance, justified as a response to the financial crisis. This led to the dissolution of many government-funded arms-length bodies, though the Sciencewise programme was allowed to continue. However, there was a general sense that economic logics were being reasserted as the main drivers behind government decision-making, including science policy, de-emphasising the democratic mandate. Within the Cabinet Office, inspired by open data and open government initiatives across the world – themselves enabled by the rapid development of digital technologies – Francis Maude (then Minister for the Cabinet Office) spearheaded a new initiative for ‘open policy’ which drew in resources and personnel from the design profession (HM Government 2012). This ill-defined concept of open policy nonetheless suggested a shift away from third way consensus politics, to a ‘user engagement’ style of policy-making (see Pallett 2015).

Within the field of STS this period saw many scholars begin to engage more critically with models of deliberative democracy. Some did so by taking democracy and participation themselves as objects of study (e.g., Irwin 2006; Chilvers 2008). This work brought attention to the institutional architectures and political economies underlying approaches to public engagement and uncovered the partiality and normativities of deliberative models. There has been increasing recognition of the constructions and exclusions inherent in all forms of participation and of the diverse forms and normativities of democracy that exist (e.g., Wynne 2007; Chilvers and Kearnes 2016). STS scholars have become interested in alternative models of democracy, from agonism to social movements and digital engagement (e.g., Birkbak 2013). Significant interventions in challenging deliberative democratic imaginaries in STS during this period also came from STS scholars who were deeply engaged with emerging digital methods and approaches that necessitated a different working imaginary of democracy (e.g., Marres 2007). STS scholars at this time also began paying greater attention to market tools and economic expertise (e.g., Callon et al. 2007), although this was not translated into a credible call for democratic engagement around these instruments and decisions. Conversations about the structure of STS as a field were also being renewed during this period, in recognition of the powerful influence of developments in Western European and North American contexts over other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia or South America – where the field has also been institutionalised to an extent. These discussions drew attention to the situatedness of many of the ‘off-the-shelf’ models of democratic politics which have been uncritically imported into STS from other disciplines.

STS and democracy co-produced

This story of the co-production of British democratic politics, participatory procedures and the democratic imaginary of parts of the field of STS is one of many potential illustrations of broader processes of co-production between STS and democracy. We have deliberately focused on this particular British story in order to demonstrate, illustrate and empirically qualify our wider argument in a situated and contextual way. It has been noted (e.g., Felt 2016) that Britain has been viewed by other countries as a ‘centre’ or forerunner in the global development of deliberative approaches to public engagement with science and technology, both in practice and in STS studies of these practices. Given its widespread influence in and beyond STS, we therefore suggest that Britain is an interesting setting and important site to explore the co-production of STS and democracy through the particular technology of public dialogue. However, it would be possible to narrate similar stories encompassing many other democratic situations, for example the development of technology-oriented frameworks for responsible research and innovation in the US (see Laurent 2017). Recent developments in Japanese science policy and STS offer another illustrative example.

The aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in 2011 has led to renewed concern in the Japanese government and work by Japanese STS scholars (and others) about public trust in science policy-making. In a number of collaborative programmes, government actors and academics in Japan have explicitly drawn upon lessons from the UK, including Sciencewise’s principles for public dialogue, in order to inform the funding and governance of science in Japan and help restore public trust (Arimoto and Sato 2012). Interestingly though, in the Japanese context these principles for deliberative and dialogic engagement have been translated into guidelines for better procedures for science advice and greater transparency (Arimoto and Sato 2012), rather than a programme of work fcussed around deliberative public engagement. Thus, an apparently similar crisis of trust in governance and expertise – even drawing on some of the same work by STS scholars – has played out and been translated in a markedly different way.

Reflecting on the co-production of STS and democracy in this way also allows us to question the dominant, often tacit, democratic imaginations which feature across the interdisciplinary field of STS (see Ezrahi 2012). In particular, our analysis reveals that very specific models and understandings of democracy from political theory have tended to be adopted when STS scholars turn to questions of democracy and participation. We do not take issue with these particular deliberative and dialogic models of democracy per se, which build on work by Jürgen Habermas and other critical theorists, but rather point out that a particular normativity of participatory democracy for a time became prevalent in parts of STS to the exclusion of others, often without sufficient reflexive awareness or exploration of the consequences. Of course, there are many examples of engagement by STS scholars with alternative models of democracy, evoking for example Chantal Mouffe’s agonism, social movements and feminist approaches, and alternative readings of Dewey (Marres 2007; Wynne 2007). However, we argue that a deliberative democratic imagination is enduring and becomes particularly prominent in interventionist-oriented STS, where scholars seek to intervene in democratising technoscience and democratic processes.

Our brief story has shown that British democracy and STS scholarship pertaining to democracy and participation have been strongly co-produced in the context of science policy over the last two decades. This has been driven in a number of ways through the channelling of science funding into work on public communication and engagement (especially around controversial new technologies), through flagship government participation processes such as ‘GM Nation’? and the ‘2050 pathways’ exercise, and more theoretically informed responses to these developments in practice.

Funding for STS scholars in Britain over the last two decades has been closely linked to developments in science and technology. In particular, funding has often been linked to a framing of the need for public acceptance of controversial new technologies and scientific developments, such as genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power and renewable energy. While it has been gradually acknowledged that public engagement, rather than just public understanding and communication, is a firmer foundation on which to build such acceptance, public acceptance of science and technology has remained the dominant framing of government departments and funders. As a result, STS scholars interested in democracy and participation have predominantly been funded as part of interdisciplinary teams with scientists, in order to do the engagement, communication or responsible innovation work of the proposed project. Alternatively, they have found funding from the government, research councils or market research companies in order to carry out, evaluate or review forms of public engagement around emerging science and technology. The science policy imperative of public acceptance has therefore shaped the progress of British STS in a very meaningful way, which at least in part explains the eruption since the early 2000s of papers on deliberative public engagement.

However, the funding landscape does not tell the full story, as it is possible to trace the ways in which British STS scholars have responded to particular events and controversies, as well as to developments in practice. The controversy around and government dismissal of the ‘GM Nation’? deliberative process which took place 2003–2004 was a key rallying point for many British STS scholars to argue for the value of deliberative public engagement, and for the relevance of the process’s key findings and outcomes, though they failed to endorse the Government’s pro-GM policy (Rowe et al. 2005). The move towards a more deliberative and dialogic attitude to public engagement around science within the UK government was also seen by many STS scholars as a positive step away from the ‘deficit-model’ style of public understanding of science schemes which had been pursued in the past. Since the creation of Sciencewise and the emergence of public dialogue as a prominent technology of British democracy, British STS scholars have responded again to the apparent institutionalisation of deliberative participation (e.g., Irwin 2006; Pallett and Chilvers 2013; Wynne 2006). This has redirected attention in STS towards the institutional and national contexts of participation, following a period of intense focus on specific discrete instances of participation (Chilvers and Kearnes 2016).

This recent interest in exploring and theorising systems of participation or deliberation in STS can again be read as an example of STS scholars responding to broader constitutional shifts. In this emerging work, STS scholars are responding in part to funders’ desires for more systemic and nexus-based approaches to addressing ‘grand challenges’ like climate change, energy and emerging technologies, and to the increasing application of digital technologies and platforms in government, democratic and market research contexts to engage citizens and voices across a given system. This has emerged in parallel with more distributed understandings of participation and the development of new methodologies for mapping these engagements (e.g., Marres 2015; Chilvers et al. 2018; Pallett et al. 2019). The rise of the internet and social media platforms as a medium of democratic engagement has been accompanied by a burgeoning interest in digital methods in British and northern European STS (Marres 2017; Rogers 2015). The growing adoption of often more instrumental mapping techniques to understand public opinions or ‘sentiments’ both by the British government and the private sector, is also an object of emerging critical engagement from STS scholars.

In this chapter we have not only taken democracy and participation as objects of study in their own right, but we have taken one step further to experiment with treating STS’s own democratic imagination as an object of study as well. This has implications for where STS scholars take their focus of study and intervention, opening up a potentially fruitful set of a sites where STS and democratic situations meet and are co-produced. We hope this has shown the value of turning the tools and approaches of STS back on themselves in order to closely examine the structure and power relations of the field, and its assumptions and broader governing imaginations. This approach can lead to a challenging of closely held ideals and assumptions – in this case the strong attachment of parts of the field to theories of deliberative democracy – and stimulate us to look further afield for our inspiration and conceptual resources.

The framework set out in the section linking the study of technologies of participation with constitutional developments and STS’s own democratic imagination allows us to break somewhat with the now common narrative of the linear take-off model of public engagement in STS, which holds that STS scholars have helped to move approaches away from the deficit model and towards dialogue, and then, more recently, towards more upstream public engagement. Implicit in this model is a view that some countries, in terms of their policy approaches and STS scholars, are seen as being leaders or ‘ahead’ of others. By questioning this model and offering an alternative narrative we hope to contribute to opening up the potential for an approach that is much more receptive to cosmopolitan diversities of participatory democratic arrangements across cultures. Through this we may find new conceptual and methodological resources for work on participation and democracy in STS.


We have advanced two main arguments in this chapter. The first was to demonstrate the intimate co-productive relationship between STS and democracy, which has been ongoing for a number of decades. The second was to offer an example of an in-depth situated study of a particular technology of participation in a particular constitutional context, in order to support the broader argument of this book: that more STS scholars should engage with situated democracies in the making as key objects of study and intervention in themselves. We have aimed to show the value of this way of engaging with democratic situations through the insights it offers into the case of Sciencewise and the technology of public dialogue, as initially quite a standardised practice of democratic politics which gained prominence in a UK context and has more recently diversified into a broader set of democratic practices. Furthermore, we have turned the microscope onto STS’s participatory democratic imagination itself and suggested that this should also be an important object of enquiry. We hope that projects like this volume will promote a greater diversity of approaches to studying democracy in STS and prompt a more critical approach to the models and definitions of democracy which are adopted.


1 Here we take a broad definition of co-productionist work in STS that encompasses arguments about the mutual construction and co-constitution of science and social order (e.g., Jasanoff 2004; Latour 1987; Nowotny et al. 2001). This idiom is increasingly adopted to explore the co-production of democracy and social orders (Chilvers and Kearnes 2016; Laurent 2017; and as mapped out in Birkbak and Papazu, this volume).

2 Many of the features we attribute to a single time period are often evident in others (see Pieckza and Escobar 2013). However, we hope to capture in this narrative the evolution of dominant participatory democratic imaginaries in STS in relation to the technology journey of public dialogue and significant constitutional shifts.


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