In the last decades, public engagement (PE) with science and technology has been enjoying unprecedented developments, becoming a recurrent issue in the public debate on science and technology. In some national contexts, specific policies aimed at stimulating PE initiatives have been devised. Over time, a wide scientific literature developed addressing public engagement from different perspectives.
To grasp the actual potential role of public engagement today, it is however necessary to widen the interpretive framework to encompass another question: how science is changing.
Beyond modern society
Changes affecting science are part of a wide array of transformations touching contemporary societies as a whole. Usually such transformations are overall represented as a shift from modern society to a new society, to which many names have been given (operationally, we will use here the concept of “post-modern society”). Despite the different interpretations developed in this regard, there is an overall convergence among scholars about the main features characterising it.
Most of them concern the changing relationship between social structures and individual actors. In the context of modern society, social structures (social norms, behavioural models, social roles, values, etc.) and the institutions of modernity supporting and reproducing them (political institutions, religious institutions, economic institutions, trade-unions, public administrations, etc.) were strong enough to exert a certain control over individuals and groups (in terms of behaviours, expectations, cultural orientations, worldviews, etc.). Now – under the pressure of different factors, – such structures and institutions are weakening while the autonomy of individuals (e.g. to make their own choice, to shape their own identity, to develop their own worldview, etc.) and the groups they are part of is increasing.
This complex dynamics is resulting in an accelerated (and in some cases, painful) transformations (let’s think about those affecting political institutions and especially political parties), the outputs of which are difficult to anticipate.
The new development paths of science
Science is one of the institution of modernity which is experiencing a critical turn.
Various interpretive models have been developed in the last decades to account for the many transformations which are progressively affecting science under the pressure of factors like the globalisation processes, the increasing interest of policy makers to orient the research programmes, the broadening competition among research institutions, the growing presence of non-academic institutions involved with research, or the expanding demands to turn scientific research results into marketable products in a short time.