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Are we getting through? Perspectives on public engagement with climate change by scientists

posted on 2024-06-07, 02:52 authored by Michael MurungaMichael Murunga

Climate change is an enormous global threat poised to affect all life on earth. It requires all humans to work together to solve and adapt to its impacts. Today, scientists see engaging distinct publics, including policymakers and communities, as a vital pathway to engendering positive social change. Public engagement helps scientists to speak about their work, solicit feedback, and make their research usable. Yet, in the context of climate change, public engagement has become highly contested and problematic. For instance, across the science-society interface, actors understand public engagement with climate change very differently based on the flow of information (i.e., one-way, two-way, deliberative), the intention for conducting it, and the role of the distinct public. Its meaning has come to rely on who propagates it and initiates its implementation. Recent studies also reveal that the rhetoric of public engagement is running ahead of practice. It has become a ‘buzzword’ with no agreed meaning or desired outcome among actors. As such, there is a need for greater clarity on how scientists see; and to what end they use the public engagement construct. We still have a limited understanding of how the interplay between scientists and the public can result in mutually satisfying outcomes for those involved. An underlying issue and knowledge gap concern whether, how, and why scientists engage or fail to engage the public in two-way conversations about climate change.
In this thesis, I aimed to examine how scientists do and can best engage distinct publics in two-way discussions about climate change. I specifically look at how scientists prioritize (or do not) two-way public engagement, ascertain the needs and interests of the different publics, and what drives them to engage or disengage from two-way engagement. I do this within a normative imperative in scholarship that calls for scientists to go beyond knowledge-deficit style thinking and not shy away from talking with the public about climate change (Chapter 1). I follow an interpretivist philosophy to provide a new understanding of two-way engagement by scientists. Interpretivism holds that reality is subjective and socially constructed. Here, what is real is shaped and informed by multiple perspectives. In that sense, it does not prioritize one view over another. I use multiple methods (i.e., interviews, surveys, desktop analysis) to give a complete insight into two-way engagement by scientists, including contradictions and opportunities for change. While I present findings from Australia, I believe the insights are generalizable across contexts.
The results show that what scientists understand as public engagement with climate change remains ambiguous. Research evidence indicates that existing mechanisms for engaging distinct publics prioritize telling rather than talking to and talking with others about climate change (Chapter 2). They do not go beyond informing the public about the risks of climate change to empowering people to take collective action. Also, through a public engagement experiment (linked to this thesis), distinct publics want more than just information on climate change. They want scientists' guidance on specific actions that can help them mitigate the risk and threats of climate change (Chapter 3). Building on the above insights, I also found nineteen contextual factors that shape how scientists engage policymakers and communities on climate change. These drivers co-occur at various levels (i.e., individual, organization, and systemic) to affect engagement (Chapter 4). For instance, power asymmetries were a cross-cutting variable affecting how scientists relate to each other, their employers, and the public. Scientists use seven distinct but flexible strategies and six value-based attributes to talk with (two-way) policymakers and communities about our changing world (Chapter 5). These processes and values intersect in practice to shape how scientists engage the distinct public in critical reflexive practice. I orient the above findings by reflecting on existing assumptions and contradictions shaping public engagement under climate change (Chapter 6).
I draw three vital insights from the thesis (Chapter 7). First, distinct contextual variables hinder scientists from engaging policymakers and communities in an ongoing and deep engagement on climate change. Remedying this concern requires a range of multidimensional solutions. For example, universities should recognize and reward scientists who engage the public and not penalize those who do not. Also, funders must remain flexible to support engagement alongside research over an extended period. Second, scientists still see public engagement as a process of telling the public about climate change (i.e., per the deficit model) and not empowering them. Third, there is a mismatch between the goal of engagement and the mode of interaction scientists use. In other words, the general narrative across the studies was the notion of "bringing in" and "getting inputs from" the public rather than working together towards a mutually satisfying outcome. In this way, public engagement remains a legitimizing activity for achieving organizational objectives, even with no institutional reward and recognition, such as securing additional research funding.
In sum, these insights are globally relevant and provide foundations for future work. Based on the results, I call for critical reflexivity on whose voice matters in an interactive encounter and under what conditions can public engagement by scientists result in mutually satisfying outcomes. There is a need to move the interplay between scientists and the public from organizational-centered to public-centere



  • PhD Thesis


xvi, 149 pages


Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies


University of Tasmania

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