Results of the essay competition on the ‘deficit concept’

By Martin W Bauer,  PUS Editor-in-Chief

PUS essay competition
The ‘deficit concept’ is widely referenced in research on science communication and the public understanding. One might even say it is the ‘totem pole’ around which the field has been dancing and revitalising since the 1980s. The concept suggests that the wider public suffers an interest deficit, a knowledge deficit, an attitudinal deficit or a cognitive deficit in processing scientific information and statistical probabilities, which ‘scientific experts’ are unlikely to exhibit in the same way.

While many see the need, the personal call and public reason to study the public understanding of science in overcoming this very deficit, for others it performs a prejudice that is problematic to start with and an expression of institutional anxiety vis-a-vis the public. This putative prejudice became a ‘bogeyman’, the stooge and the perennial target of polemics. Some identified the very use of certain research methods as entanglement in the deficit concept.

However, despite 20-plus years of polemics and positioning against the deficit concept, it seems that this concept has an unusual staying power. It tends to come back in one way or the other, even in different guises. As we moved from a discourse of public understanding with its literacy and attitudinal deficits in the 1990s to the discourse of public engagement with science, we find the public exhibiting a ‘trust deficit’ in the new millennium (for an earlier review of all this, see Bauer et al., 2007).

The real phenomenon here seems to be the very stickiness of the concept, the persistence of a common way of thinking: the public understanding of science poses a problem, and this problem is to be attributed on the side of the public, and changing the public is the solution.

All the polemic and critical analysis of the public and institutional discourse seems futile as the concept persists and recurs. Why are the alternatives not catching on? There seems to be a dual requirement:
  • First, the concept and the evidence it brings to light.
  • Second, we need to understand better why it does not go away.

The Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference, 2014, in Salvador  de Bahia (Brazil) was another of those occasions where ample reference to the deficit echoed through many sessions, including the keynote speeches. On that occasion, I consulted with colleagues, and we developed the idea of launching an essay competition for Public Understanding of Science with the following title: Why does the ‘deficit concept’ not go away?

We invited submissions from two constituencies, from those age 35 or younger and from those over 35 who are more established members of the community. By the deadline of 15 January 2015, we had received a total of 13 contributions: 9 essays by older authors and 4 by younger authors, from South and North America, Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, none reached us from Asia or Africa.

Could it be that in Asia and Africa this is not a sensible question to ask?

We selected six essays into a normal review and revision process. Initially, we intended to publish only two winners from the submissions, but the quality and the range of arguments was so encouraging, that we felt compelled to extend the set of ‘winners’. All winning contributions will be open access, and each winner will receive 2 months of free access to the journal.

The result of this successful competition is now in print. Six papers follow in this issue, three from each constituency: two substantive arguments and one with a more practical perspective. I am delighted to be able to publish six original arguments from Latin America, the United States, Europe and Australia.

We are very pleased to introduce over-35 winners Gitte Meyer and Carina Cortassa; Brianne Suldovsky and co authors Molly Simis, Haley Madden, Michael Cacciatore and Sara Yeo are our younger winners. Beth Raps and Henry Ko provide a shorter practitioner perspectives.

However, I very much hope that this is not the end of the matter but rather a new beginning. We invite others to join in with shorter/longer comments on the question and answers given. The deficit concept is likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future, and here, you can read why this might indeed be so.