‘Public-led, expert-fed’: An Interview with Tracey Brown of Sense About Science

We spoke with Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science about the significance of the citizen fora series and how this format lends itself particularly to both studying and cultivating public trust in experts and expertise. Tracey chaired the inaugural deliberative mini-public session in our Citizens’ Fora series in London in November 2022.

How does the citizens’ fora series fit into Sense About Science’s work overall, particularly in terms of public engagement, and encouraging scientific thinking among the public?

Sense About Science promotes public interest in sound science and evidence. We have always taken an approach of being what we call ‘public led expert fed’, which means that we’re starting with where the public is at in a discussion, and then figuring out how expertise can contribute to their thinking and deliberations, rather than kind of starting at a sort of textbook type approach to public engagement, where you think, ‘Well, they’ve got to understand this or that,’ and people feel like you’re taking them back to school. It’s much better to start with, ‘Where is the discussion? What are the things we need to unpack or that they need to reflect on?’ So, for us, this was a really great opportunity to explore what happens when you throw answers and expertise and put resources at people’s disposal – how do they use that expertise? And what effect does it have on the confidence that they have in the information that they’re getting?

How does this format lend itself to helping researchers understand where the public is at?

One of the great benefits of a workshop-style approach is that it actually really trains researchers. I think we underestimate the value of it – we think in terms of ‘What do the participants get out of it?’, which is often a lot. But actually, what did the experts get out of it? They begin to see the information that they bring in a context that they didn’t have before. One of the key things for us in the workshop was seeing the way that people had to frame the same information in response to different types of questions. This was particularly the case when we broke people up into groups. One big thing I take from the experience is giving people the opportunity to question an expert in small groups, because the style of questioning was different in each group. Sometimes there were very common themes through the groups. The expert was then able to adjust to people coming from different places and experiences.

How did the different experts adjust?

We had the scientist, the NGO/campaign organization, and we had a journalist, who was quite flamboyant. One thing I noticed was that the journalists had much more of an intuitive sense of audience, and so was much more quickly able to adjust the level of detail and of complexity – and even of language and style – to the kind of questions that people were asking, and could see more social context more quickly. So, they were much faster on their feet than the other participants. And that didn’t mean that the other participants weren’t appreciated. Other experts were appreciated very much by the participants, but I think the journalist was quicker to accommodate the different places people are coming from.

We’re going to take these the results of this research back to European policymakers in May. What would you describe the responsibility of policymakers to be towards the participants?

One of the things that I really would love to see us address is that there weren’t policymakers in the room. Because the learning in the room was great. The problem-solving dynamic was really strong. A key thing that came out of this was we had a room full of Londoners who wanted to solve London’s problems. They were so thoughtful about what the strengths and weaknesses of different proposals were the trade-offs – they got to talking about trade-offs really quickly, which is a very grown-up policy discussion to have. They were looking at where low-hanging fruit might be, where benefits could happen for their community that would also benefit in terms of emissions targets, and so on. So I think not having policymakers in the room was a loss for the policymakers, because I don’t think they see people in their communities thinking in that way very often. They are often on the receiving end of  a one-sided argument or a campaign group argument. They tend to think about how the public views an issue through that prism, or through the prism of what they see in the newspapers. By being in the room and seeing people’s deliberations, the expertise, but also where they themselves felt they had some jurisdiction over decisions in their community – that would have been a really beneficial experience.

How might we refashion this format to encourage more policymakers to listen to the public?

One of the one of the things I think we also need to do for a different reason, is have policymakers there, so that the hard thinking that members of the public do in a citizen forum actually has a consequence. One thing that made me feel  uneasy about this format is that you do really engage people – they become quite animated and excited – and frustrated about why things haven’t been solved. And they have ideas.  London’s a really diverse city and they’re working together across many different generational, ethnic, and class lines, from different parts of London that with very different issues. It felt like it just ran to the end of the day, and it needs to go somewhere. That, for me was the concern. One of the things that Sense About Science has always emphasized is actually bringing people into the discussion where decisions are made, not pushing them off to the side – not only to understand things, but actually to become active participants where they need and use expert information, in order to get us all to have better lives. That’s really what this is all about – to take part in that way to be empowered. But we need the policymakers there, for them to listen. This needs to directly impinge on discussions that are going on. We need to think about how we do that.

How did this DMP differ from other types of workshops you’ve chaired or observed?

The unusual thing about the approach in this DMP was that it really focused in on the different types of expert or the different ways in which the people were bringing information. That has enabled us to think about how much those things matter, what trust is all about. If people felt that the motive was was genuine, it didn’t matter if someone came at something from a one-sided approach. We know that there were motives in the room – people were upfront about it and passionate about what they what they stood for. And everyone was really okay with that. So I don’t think that they’re looking for denuded, harshly independent views on any issue. But they do want to understand a chain of argument around the facts.

What was surprising or unexpected about this experience?

One of the unexpected outcomes for participants themselves was to be reminded of how consensual and constructive a conversation can be with people who aren’t like yourself. I even heard someone saying, ‘This is so much better than than seeing all these debates on social media’. It’s almost as if citizens need reminding that that they can sit and work together with people who have very different outlooks than their own and come to find points of agreement, which was what they were working to do. They didn’t do what often happens on social media, where they become more and more divided, they actually became very consensual in their approach. It’s so important that people are participating in real conversations about the kind of world we want to live in, rather than lobbing information at each other and trying to label it as trustworthy or not trustworthy. It’s so much better for that information to be exchanged in a dynamic relationship than to just be lobbed like missiles in a debate.