The interface between “thou shalt communicate” and “what is stopping me from having a public face?”

I’ve been trying for ages to pin down exactly what interests me about public engagement and I finally seem to be getting there. I’m interested in the interface between institutionalising ‘top down’ invocations of the need to be publicly orientated (see first quote) and the ‘bottom up’ dispositions towards doing public work which are irreducible to this (see second quote, with emphasis added). What affordances can the ‘top down’ provide for the ‘bottom up’? What constraints does the ‘top down’ entail for the ‘bottom up’? Is it possible for those working in the latter mode to productively and proactively engage with the former? Or does this risk co-option? How do people experience these tensions on a practical level, both personally and in terms of the projects they’re engaged in?

In the last decade or so, scientists have been delivered a new commandment from on high: thou shalt communicate. In the recent past, many scientists looked at involvement in the popularization of science as something that might damage their career; now, they are being told by the greater and the good of science that they have no less than a duty to communicate with the public about their work. There are even cash inducements, from agencies funding scientific research, for scientists to popularize science. Previous generations of young researchers had become used to being told that their place was in the laboratory: they were often brought up in a culture which said that science – if it were good science – should be generally unintelligible to all but an elite. Now, many of the new generation of student scientists are being coached in communication skills to equip them for talking intelligibly to the outside world.

Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Science In Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. Pg 1

It is becoming increasingly apparent that various academic disciplines, right across the spectrum of the social sciences and humanities, are trying quite hard to develop a more public profile. These struggles take many forms, as do the drivers and pressures that instigate them. Some are based upon governmental imperatives for research ‘impact’ – which is actually shorthand for having measurable impact (Burrows, 2012). Others are a result of cultural changes and the general feeling that public engagement is worthwhile. Alongside these, there are also some broader transformations in the media landscape that mean that researchers are forced to ask: what is stopping me from having a public face?

David Beer. Public Geographies and the Politics of Circulation

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