A new place for publics in science


The following article is authored by T.Y. Branch​.


  • Science’s position in society is to be adjusted as to better address the needs of overlooked and excluded publics.

  • Improving trust in science requires new ways of engagement between publics and experts.

  • Hands-on examples of such extended engagement come from the Living Labs in Africa, Asia, North America and South America.

Science has played an integral role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our post-pandemic recovery, we have the chance to take new insight from science’s successes and shortcomings — namely with respect to understanding the interface between science and society.


One way to apply what we have learned is through a review of how science serves society’s needs. In the wake of the Second World War, influential actors such as the British Society for Freedom in Science and the American engineer and policy maker Vannevar Bush helped to formally establish a place for science apart from society and other disciplines, like the arts. The aim of this separation was to ‘protect’ science’s integrity, status and potential for discovery. As a result, science and scientists were envisioned as independent from society and therefore removed from the consequences of their research. As society and its relationship to science have evolved, increasing calls to improve trust in science have led to questions about how to reposition science in society to better address the needs of publics.


In order to answer these questions, it is important to first define what counts as a need and to whom these needs correspond. This requires acknowledging that the public good has served too few for too long, often overlooking and excluding publics (e.g., women, indigenous groups, people of colour) with whom trust must be restored. Both beneficiary and impoverished lay publics have been excluded from science in large part due to science communication and science education models which have assumed them to be deficient of scientific knowledge, lacking positive attitudes towards science and most recently, mistrusting of science. The irony in this is that even with decreased levels of trust in science, scientists are still among the most trusted members of society (Funk et al. 2019, Krause et al. 2019).


Since science communication and science education have relied on models which underestimate the capabilities of publics (Branch-Smith, 2019), alternatives will have to correct for this. Fashioning a path forward will take a combination of humility, value-consciousness and innovation. The development of Living Labs, emerging from grassroots initiatives and supported by national funding, could serve as a tool through which to improve the inclusion of publics. Living Labs differ significantly from traditional science and science communication models by offering more opportunities for lay/expert engagement through the collaborative design of research questions, choice of methodologies and decisions about evidence thresholds. Citizen-centered Living Labs are open ecosystems which adopt a systematic co-creation approach to integrate research and innovation processes in real community settings. Living Labs are increasingly being utilised across the globe[1] to create projects for example, to develop smart cities to address challenges related to climate change. Furthermore, by creating a place for lay publics in science, they can serve not only to improve public understanding of science but also public trust in science by building feelings of ownership and empowerment (Brandsen et al. 2018). This sort of engagement is primed to contribute to public understanding of science.


Living Labs are one tool to bridge the distance between science and society but should not be the only one used. Focusing the conversation on how society should rebuild post-pandemic exclusively with respect to science risks repeating the scientism —prioritising science and its methods as the best (and even only) way to gain reliable knowledge— that sowed distrust in the first place. I propose that science and society cannot exist without arts and culture and our post-pandemic science should do more to reflect this relationship.


The cultural sector has also been deeply affected by the pandemic. With venues like theatres, concert halls and rehearsal spaces closed, artists have had to be creative in their engagement mechanisms and publics willing to consume arts and culture through alternative means. In the Canadian context, between 2019 and 2020, over half of organisations and businesses in the arts, entertainment and recreation experienced a revenue decrease of at least 30% with another third experiencing at least a 50% decrease (Hill, 2021). In the wake of these changes, an opportunity presents itself for science and culture to serve as a unified force for public good.


The arts can take on many forms and are becoming more diverse with respect to participants (e.g. more inclusive of minority groups). They offer enticing, emotive and value-rich means of communicating with others by being amenable to a variety of media and facilitating more engagement experiences than science in isolation. Science and art come together in places like museums, galleries and science centres which harness visual, audio and material culture to communicate science in a way that is engaging. This emphasis on engagement is important because it has been shown to improve public retention and understanding of science (Passmore et al. 2014) and can eventually improve trust in science. Furthermore, reliable information learned from these arts-based interactions with science can be used to facilitate well-informed personal and civic decision-making as a benefit to democracy. Thus, the third and final challenge to our post-pandemic recovery will be to help science to collaborate more fruitfully with the arts, including in Living Labs, as a way to make science communication and education more compelling, culturally relevant and equipped to provide more opportunities for bidirectional engagement.




1.    Acknowledge that science has been separated from society for too long, which has led to the failure to serve certain publics.

2.    Adopt science creation processes that make room for lay publics and their contributions to science like Living Labs.

3.    Abandon the separation of science and society to explore alternative art-inclusive opportunities for understanding science.   



[1] The European Network of Living Labs (ENoLLs), the Living Laboratories Initiative in Canada,

the UN Habitat Urban Pathways partnership Regional Urban Living Lab Centres in Africa, Latin America and Asia.



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Branch-Smith, T.Y. 2019. “Contextualizing Science for Value-Conscious Communication.” PhD diss., University of Waterloo.


Brandsen, Taco, Trui Steen, and Bram Verschuere. 2018. “Co-production and Co-creation in Public Services: Urgent Issues in Practice and Research.” In Co-production and Co-creation: Engaging Citizens in Public Services, edited by Taco Brandsen, Bram Verschuere, and Trui Steen, 3-8. New York: Routledge.


Bridgman, P.W. 1944. "The British Society for Freedom in Science." Science 100 (2586), 54-57. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.100.2586.5


Bush, Vannevar. 1945. "Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President." United States Government Printing Office. Washington, DC.


Funk, Cary, Meg Hefferon, Brian Kennedy, and Courtney Johnson. 2019. Trust and Mistrust in AmericansViews of Scientific Experts.” Pew Research Center. August 2, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/08/02/trust-and-mistrust-in-americans-views-of-scientific-experts/.


Hill, Kelly. 2021. “Organizational Stress and Resilience in the Arts in Canada.” Statistical Insights on the Arts Series, SIA report 54 (November). ISBN 978-1-926674-57-5.


Krause, Nicole M, Dominique Brossard, Dietram A Scheufele, Michael A Xenos, and Keith Franke. 2019. Trends—AmericansTrust in Science and Scientists.” Public Opinion Quarterly 83 (4): 817-836. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfz041.


Passmore, Cynthia, Julia Svoboda Gouvea, and Ronald Giere. 2014. “Models in Science and in Learning Science: Focusing Scientific Practice on Sense-making.” In International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching, edited by Michael R. Matthews, 1171-1202. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-7654-8_36.




T.Y. Branch ​is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Cologne.


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.