Richard Jones'' Soft Machines blog has a lengthy discussion--well worth reading in its entirety--on the impact of public engagement in scientific research, and in particular in the area of nanotechnology.
Andrew Maynard has written a reaction piece on Jones'' work that provides some US context to Jones who was focused primarily on the UK experience.
I am afraid that I fall into the category that Jones describes as ''cynical'' when it comes to the usefulness of public engagement, which seems often to be ''exercises that are intended, not to have a real influence on genuinely open decisions, but simply to add a gloss of legitimacy to decisions that have already been made.''
But the real root of my concerns regarding public engagement is not that it is some ruse cooked up by the powers that be to appease the public, but that science may be governed by the ignorance of the mob. As Maynard describes it, ''The challenge is to develop and enact ways of achieving this that are socially responsive and tap into the ''wisdom of the crowd''''rather than the ''madness of the mob''.''
My cynicism was turned on its head when I discovered that the two scientists: Jones and Maynard, are strong proponents for the usefulness of public engagement, arguing that it actually may lead to better science.
Maynard sees that maybe with a new Obama administration poised to take office and powerful new networking tools public engagement may be able to beneficially influence science and technology decision-making processes. I just hope that the networking tools can help to overcome the deficit in the public understanding of science so we can get more of the ''wisdom of the crowd''.