Essays‎ > ‎

From Deficit to Dialogue: is demarcation desirable?

From deficit to dialogue; it's an overarching narrative in science communication over the last fifteen years, and one which speaks of a huge shift in the dominant mode of communication. The Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement, based around the notion of providing a 'cognitively deficient' public with scientific facts for the 'greater good' (Thomas & Durant, 1987:13-14), has in the past been widely criticised as patronising and unrealistic (Hilgartner, 1990:534; Wynne, 1992). We are lead to believe that the "one-way, top-down communication" (Trench, 2008:119) that it promotes does not work, and instead the public should be engaged with; use of dialogic communication, where communicator and public interact, allows for improved understanding in both parties. A desire for such dialogue lies at the heart of the Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST) manifesto. According to the romanticised view of science communication, a paradigm shift from PUS to PEST happily coincided with a report issued by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology (SCST, 2000), which spoke of a 'new mood for dialogue' in the culture of science communication.

In reality, it seems difficult to believe that such a dramatic change occurred; as Trench writes, it seems "at best implausible that scientific communities and those working closely with them in policy or publicity have shifted their approach radically over a short period" (Trench, 2008:119). What for dialogue, then? If such a paradigm shift never occurred, we are left to consider two main possibilities: that dialogue is "old wine in new bottles" (Bauer, 2007:86), merely the old deficit model with a different name; or, dialogical engagement is a new and useful form of communication, but one which didn't become the accepted norm following the House of Lords report and has instead been slowly growing in acceptance. In this essay, I look to explore the current state of the shift from PUS to PEST with the help of a case study. Along the way, I hope to show that dialogue isn't deficit dressed-to-impress, but an alternative method of communication that has been, and remains to be, difficult to fully develop whilst deficit-style communication exists. This, I shall argue, often leaves modern science engagement stranded somewhere between the theoretical constructs of deficit and dialogue, and as such the demarcation of an event into PUS or PEST categories is neither straightforward nor any indicator of success.

Science Oxford is the city of Oxford's "first cultural centre for science" (Science Oxford, 2009), and its public engagement team, Science Oxford Live, is responsible for a wide-ranging calendar of events. Recently, they provided a string of 'scientist on the sofa' events, where the public were able to "find out about the local people solving a global problem" (Curing Cancer?, 2009). 'Curing Cancer?, one such event, took place on 29th October 2009 and was subsequently made available to view on-line. The event was promoted with the blurb:

"Across Oxfordshire people are working on better treatments for Cancer. Joining us on the Science Oxford Live Sofa will be Martin Christlieb from the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology, to examine the work thats being done, and whether a cure for cancer is a realistic possibility."

This description suggests a level of informality - Martin Christlieb is "joining us" on the sofa - which connotes that this will be an open forum for discussion. It's interesting that Martin is referred to by first name, and that his title - he has a PhD - is ignored. Though an expert in 'curing cancer', made obvious by his institutional affiliation, the public is made to feel that Martin is in many ways one of them, and this event will provide an arena in which they can feel comfortable in their own knowledge.



The 'mood for dialogue' is further developed during the preamble to the event. During the introduction the facilitator explains the format of the evening, and suggests that

"because cancer is a very personal topic for a lot of people (pause) rather than having Martin stand up and talk for 45 minutes while he dispenses his wisdom form the mountain tops (pause) and you all sit and receive his wisdom, I thought it would be a good idea if we could have a more open conversation between all of us."

This is an explicit reference to how the facilitator wants the evening to proceed; this, it seems, is an event where the dialogic will win out, where public and scientist shall interact on an equal footing. It is a shame, then, that in the next breath, the facilitator explains that "Martin is an expert in his field, and so there will be times when it's just him talking" (Curing Cancer?, 2009). Here, we see the true balance of power emerging, and it suggests that it is Martin who will have the final word in any debate this evening; is this actually a PUS, rather than PEST, event? This change in framing accords with the findings of Davies from a supposedly dialogical event held at the Dana Centre in London, where "the meaning of the event seem[ed] to shift from moment to moment, as language move[d] from that of PUS and the deficit model to that of dialogue and debate" (Davies, 2009:79). The participants experience binarily opposed messages about the event; are they there to be spoken to, or to interact with each other? This schizophrenic introduction to the event is indicative of the whole, and as I proceed I shall point out other areas -layout, content, language - where communication is torn between PUS and PEST.


The room in which the event took place was arranged with the visiting scientist and facilitator sat in armchairs on a small, raised stage; the remaining participants sat in rows, facing the stage. This arrangement of the audience alone connotes the atmosphere of a classroom or theatre, both of which are reminiscent of one-way communication. Without delving in to the complexities of how seating arrangements affect learning, it is no stretch to suggest that the air of informality afforded by placing scientist and facilitator in armchairs is diminished by seating the participants in such a scholastic fashion. Many dialogue events, such as Cafe Scientifiques, attempt to overcome this by arranging seats in a circle, in which the scientist and the facilitator are included, but not so here. Before the event even began, then, the participants were receiving mixed messages as to its format; they were unsure as to whether they should expect a lecture or a debate.


In-keeping with a constantly shifting mode of communication, the event began with a question, addressed to the whole group by the facilitator: "are there people that have a particular reason for coming along this evening, and would anybody like to share one of those stories with us?" I was, and remain, shocked by the frank responses on the part of the participants to this question; a woman at the front spoke of her close family being affected by cancer in the past, and stories became more confessional until finally an elderly gentleman revealed that he was "about to start a course of radiotherapy treatment for prostate cancer in the next... (mumbled)." This is exactly the type of open admission that could pave the way for meaningful dialogue, and no doubt it is exactly what the facilitator was aiming to achieve. This mood was not, however, capitalized upon.


When an audience member claimed, early-on in proceedings, to be "unaware as to exactly how cancer bumps people off", the facilitator reinterpreted the statement as a question - "what is cancer?" - directed at Martin, providing him with his first chance to speak. At this point the framing of the event changed once more, as Martin proceeded to explain the concepts surrounding cancer and patient death in a lengthy - almost ten minute long - monologue. Throughout, he was animated and engaging whilst explaining these concepts. As Trench suggests, scientists can become excited about their work and explaining it to the public (Trench, 2001:12), and here this manifests itself as a run-away explanation, seemingly with no end in sight. Though this is undoubtedly deficit communication, it is well intentioned; scientists often truly believe that it is important for the public to be provided with the facts (Davies, 2007:17-21). However, this isn't the idealized view of what this event should be, at least in the facilitator's mind. Just as in Davies's case study of the Dana centre (Davies, 2009:79), the facilitator at Science Oxford attempts, and succeeds, in opening up routes for dialogue: "so, this [cancers causing organ failure] is all kind of miserable, so what kind of things do we think we can do to stop it?"


At each stage of discussion, though, more questions emerged; Martin, in the assumed role of expert, answered, but in doing so set up a pattern of short dialogues followed by 10 minute monologues. This to-ing and fro-ing between open-floor discussion and orating expert continued throughout the event. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it is certainly not in-keeping with other events that make explicit their aim for promoting dialogue; organisers of Cafe Scientifiuqe claim that "it is often the silent presence of a professional which legitimates and promotes an empowered discussion" (Glaser, 2005), and this is certainly not the case here. The event seems to lacks a formalized identity of either PUS or PEST; it doesn't fit with the theoretical definitions of deficit or dialogue, but flits between the two, confused.


The participants, far from being the homogenous group I have assumed up until this point, may in fact be divided into those that have first-hand experience with cancer, and those that don't; this much is clear from the opening question of "are there people that have a particular reason for coming along this evening?" Within the audience, there are those that have a particular, vested interest in cancer (possibly, for one of a number of reasons) and those that have a general interest (Michael, 2009:620). Equally, we are made all too aware that there exists a spectrum of scientific literacy at the event. The question discussed previously - "what is cancer?" - provides clear evidence that at least one participant lacks the piece of 'text book knowledge' of how cancer manifests itself within the human body. To take an extreme, Miller-esque stance it could be argued that this audience member is, in lacking such knowledge, scientifically illiterate (Bauer, 2007:80-81). At the opposing end of the spectrum, feedback from the event reveals that a number of Oxford University medical students were present in the audience, who commented that the event was concerned with "basic science advertised as [the] cutting edge" and that the organisers should make more of an effort to "advertise [the] intended audience" (Science Oxford Monitoring, 2009).


The presence of differing publics and levels of scientific literacy presents a problem, and suggests that to some extent there has to be a shifting frame of communication at such an event. Whilst dialogue is becoming extremely popular in science centres for many reasons (Davies, 2009:335), there is an argument that suggests that, without understanding, it struggles to be truly meaningful (van der Sanden, 2008:100). To provide every participant with a basic level of understanding is to provide them with a voice; in the space of an hour, the only convenient way to bring audience members up to speed on a topic is through judicious use of deficit communication. Such a strategy seem to be in practice here, and furthermore seems to work, as the feedback avows: "good speaker", "cheerfully, realistically presented", "good analogies to simplify science"', "very interesting" (Science Oxford Monitoring, 2009).


In the face of the constantly changing framing of communication, then, the event was deemed a success by both audience and organizer; 80% of the participants claimed to have enjoyed the event (Science Oxford Monitoring, 2009). From the feedback, it can be seen that is in no small part thanks to Martin, who was engaging and able to explain concepts simply. In fact, he managed to construct his responses to questions arising from the open-floor debate cleverly, so that they fell rather neatly in to three distinct sections. Initially, questions were greeted with answers defining and describing cancer: what it is and how it kills. Latterly, his responses centred on the current thinking on the risk factors and genetics of cancer. Finally, Martin took his 'expert opinion' sections as time to reflect on his research, based around new imaging modalities for identifying cancers in patients. Maybe this ordering was agreed on by the organizer; maybe it was Martin's choosing; or it could have happened by pure coincidence. Regardless, what's interesting is that the work he presents is nascent; this isn't technology about to be rolled out on the NHS, but early, speculative work, of which he openly admits the shortcomings and limitations. There is gradual move from the downstream - textbook knowledge and "the six hallmarks of cancer" - to the truly upstream - speculative research studies regarding "radioactive tracers in PET" - throughout the event (Hilgarntger, 1990:528). In creating this narrative-like structure, where grounding concepts are introduced early and built upon during the deficit sections, Martin was able to educate the audience and then take them on a journey upstream, as well as providing a forum for discussion. This, I feel, is what made the event the success it was: an attempt to empower the audience by allowing them to learn and debate about cutting-edge research.


'Curing Cancer? refused to be pigeon-holed; it used constantly shifting modes of communication which were a result of not just the language of the event, but the physical lay-out and structure of the evening. I spoke of how the constantly changing frame of communication could lead to a confused audience; however, upon considering, instead of the style of communication, the audience, it became obvious that this criticism rested on the assumption of a homogeneous public. In reality, a complex mixture of varying interests and levels of scientific literacy were present in the audience. In this sense, the shifting style of communication was not a hindrance but a help; the expert equipped participants with a suitable degree of requisite knowledge with which to enter into effective dialogue; it provided an opportunity for people to learn and then discuss. PUS and PEST styles of communication bought unique strengths, which combined to great effect. Whilst this is not necessarily indicative of all science engagement, the important message is that the style of communication alone cannot be used as an indicator of success; instead, what is crucial is the consideration the event as the whole. Essentially, aspects such as narrative, topic, and an understanding of the public(s) in the audience should not be sidelined for the sake of creating a 'dialogue' event. 'Curing Cancer?' was undoubtedly a success, despite the fact that it didnt fit neatly with a fairytale view of a science communication kingdom ruled by PEST. Instead of a constant strive for events labelled dialogue, science communicators may do well to take a step back from the fairytale and instead think about what might work for their public.



Bauer, M., Allum, N. & Miller, S. (2007) „What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 79-95.

Davies, Sarah (2007) „“A Bit More Cautious, A Bit More Critical”: Science and the Public in Scientists Talk, in Alice Bell, Sarah Davies & Felicity Mellor (eds) Science and its Publics, Newcastle: CSP, pp. 15-35.

Davies, Sarah R (2009) „Learning to Engage; Engaging to Learn: The Purposes of Informal Science-Public Dialogue. In: Holliman, R., Whitelegg, L., Scanlon, E., Schmidt, S. & Thomas, J. (eds), Practising science communication in the information age: Theorising professional practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 72-85.

Davies, S. R., McCallie, E., Simonsson, E., Lehr, J.L., Duensing, S., (2009) „Discussing dialogue: perspectives on the value of science dialogue events that do not inform policy, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 18(3): 338-353.

Glaser, D., (2005) Cafe Scientifique, Retrieved on 5th December 2009 from

Hilgartner, S. (1990) „The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses, Social Studies of Science, vol. 20(3): 519-539.

House of Lords (2000), Select Committee on Science and Technology Third report, London: House of Lords. Retrieved on 2nd December from

Thomas, Geoffrey & John Durant (1987) „Why should we promote understanding of Science?, Scientific Literacy Papers 1, Oxford: University of Oxford, pp. 1-14.

Trench, B. (2008), „Chapter 7: Towards an Analytical Framework of Science Communication Models in Cheng D. (ed.) Communicating Science in Social Contexts: New models, new practices (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands) pp. 119-135.

Trench, B., and Junker, K. (2001), „How scientists view their public communication. Paper presented at the Sixth International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology, Geneva, February 2001.

Micheal, M. (2009) „Publics performing publics: of PiGs, PiPs and politics, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 18(5): 617-631

Science Oxford (2009), 'About us', retrieved on 2nd December 2009 from

'Curing Cancer?' (2009), An event orgnaised by Science Oxford Live, available to view on-line at website

Science Oxford Monitoring (2009), Internal Science Oxford compilation of feedback, provided by Domininc McDonald, Head of Public Engagement, Science Oxford

van der Sanden, M.C.A., and Meijham, F.J, (2008), „Dialogue guides awareness and understanding of science: an essay on different goals of dialogue leading to different science communication approaches, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 17: 89-103

Wynne, Brian (1992) „Misunderstood misunderstanding: Social identities and public uptake of science, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 1 (3): 281-304.