Have we really moved beyond PUS?

January 24th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The excerpt below is from the excellent report from DEMOS, a UK think tank, titled “See-through science,” which discusses the evolution of engagement between the scientific community and the rest of society. It argues that we have moved beyond the simplistic and unsuccessful efforts by scientists to enhance the public understanding of science (PUS) as a way to motivate public action in particular directions, such as supporting science or accepting certain technologies. Perhaps this is the case in certain contexts having to do with the introduction of potentially disruptive technologies like nanotechnology, but my sense is that the PUS model is alive and well in the scientific community at large. Just consider the recent NRC report on US competitiveness I mentioned yesterday. Here is the excerpt from the DEMOS report:

Phase 1: Public understanding of science (PUS)

The initial response of scientists to growing levels of public detachment and mistrust was to embark on a mission to inform. Attempts to gauge levels of public understanding date back to the early 1970s, when annual surveys carried out by the US National Science Foundation regularly uncovered gaps in people’s knowledge of scientific facts (for example, whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa). Walter Bodmer’s 1985 report for the Royal Society placed PUS firmly on the UK agenda, and proclaimed ‘It is clearly a part of each scientist’s professional responsibility to promote the public understanding of science.’ The Bodmer report gave birth to a clutch of initiatives designed to tackle the blight of public ignorance, including COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

Phase 2: From deficit to dialogue

For more than a decade, the language and methods of PUS oozed across the face of UK science policy. But instead of lubricating understanding, scientists gradually discovered that PUS was clogging the cracks and pores which might have allowed genuine dialogue to breathe. Implicit within PUS was a set of questionable assumptions about science, the public and the nature of understanding. It relied on a ‘deficit model’ of the public as ignorant and science as unchanging and universally comprehensible. Partly as a result of PUS’s failings, relations between science and society festered throughout the 1990s, and an occasional rash of blisters erupted (the BSE crisis, GM crops, mobile phones, MMR). It wasn’t until 2000 that PUS was washed away, when an influential House of Lords report detected ‘a new mood for dialogue’. Out went PUS, which even the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser now acknowledged was ‘a rather backward-looking vision’. In came the new language of ‘science and society’ and a fresh impetus towards dialogue and engagement.

Phase 3: Moving engagement upstream

The House of Lords report detected ‘a new humility on the part of science in the face of public attitudes, and a new assertiveness on the part of the public’. And in the four years since it was published, there has been a perceptible change. Consultation papers, focus groups, stakeholder dialogues and citizens’ juries have been grafted on to the ailing body of British science, in the hope that they will give it a new lease of life. Every so often, a few drops of PUS still dribble out from a Lewis Wolpert or a Lord Taverne, but these voices are now a dwindling force. The science community has embraced dialogue and engagement, if not always with enthusiasm, then at least out of a recognition that BSE, GM and other controversies have made it a non-negotiable clause of their ‘licence to operate’.

Read the whole report here.

3 Responses to “Have we really moved beyond PUS?”

  1. Lisa Dilling Says:

    Of course I love how the writers play with the PUS metaphor.. And I agree that PUS is still alive and well, at least in the science communities I’m familiar with. This is the case even though those who study public understanding of science have suggested that the deficit model (just give the public more info. and they will then “understand” and make the “right” decision) is an unrealistic way to expect science and society to work. Suggests that much of social science research in this area has not yet flowed across boundaries to inform science culture or policy decisions. We all, even in social science, still have some of these same models operating, and it would behoove all disciplines to more openly consider the alternatives for science-society interaction.

  2. 2
  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Although I haven’t come up with an acronym as methaphorically cute, it seems that there is an equally falwed model of “scientists understanding science studies” (SUSS?) that relies on much the same dynamic of PUS!

    Will upstream engagement work in this instance? Maybe this blog is an experiment in upstream engagement as an alternative to SUSS ;-)

  4. 3
  5. Sylvia S Tognetti Says:

    Hi Roger,
    It was with those same thoughts that I started the Post-Normal Times blog – if I take my time posting it is because it is hard to write about these issues concisely – it never “fits” within the prevailing discourse – the reason for the subtitle “all the news that doesn’t fit.” But I think blogs are a great way to generate discourse on this subject and engage people in a different way. We aren’t confined to soundbites…