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Why is it so hard to move beyond the deficit model?

The organisers of a workshop titled ‘Science and Citizenship’, to take place in the Netherlands in June, point out that public understanding of science (PUS) scholars have argued for decades now that citizens aren’t just empty vessels into which science educators and disseminators can pour knowledge (the ‘deficit model’). Over and over again it has been argued (and demonstrated empirically) that citizens always already have a lot of knowledge and experience of science and technology. People aren’t passive consumers but engaged citizens that actively look for knowledge they are interested in.

Yet, “to the frustration of PUS scholars”, as the workshop organisers, Willem Halffman and Maud Radstake, put it, “the deficit model is surprisingly resilient”, especially, they suggest, among politicians, civil servants, ‘scientific statesmen’ and scientists. They could have added science journalists, science centres, science museums, and communication departments as well; in my experience, the list of adherents to the ‘deficit model’ of science communication can be made very long.

So why, then, is it so hard to move beyond the idea of dissemination filling up empty vessels? One reason, Halffman and Radstake suggest, is that even though the PUS-criticism of the deficit model may be correct, the practical consequences of the critique “are often hard to specify”:

what is a well-meaning and enthusiastic scientist to do? If she is convinced she has a life-saving project on her hands, should she not inform a world that is ignorant of her treasure, as a good citizen? Are such scientists really so naïve about what citizens know and think?

That’s a good point! And an even better, self-reflexive point is that we PUS scholars may be myopic. Maybe, say Halffman and Radstake, we take our own “well-educated middle class friends as models of ‘the citizen’?” And they add a “last, Foucauldian twist”: “is the notion of ‘citizen’ itself not profoundly shaped by scientific understanding, especially social sciences and even PUS itself?”.

I really like this attitude. My general impression of the PUS field is a crowd driven by a combination of enthusiasm and social/cultural criticism, but which is rarely self-critical, at least when it comes to its own cognitive and political motivations and power ambitions.

The aim of the workshop, which takes place in Soeterbeeck, Ravenstein, The Netherlands, 13-15 June, is to understand current debates in the public understanding of science by looking at notions of citizenship, both among scientists and policy makers and reflexively, and by looking at concrete examples of public engagement with techno-science and ask which conceptions of the citizen are involved. There is a registration form for the workshop (register by 22 April). And, by the way, the whole thing is supported by The Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC).

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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