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Reinventing the System to Engage the Public

Question: How can we better engage the public in some sort of collective decision-making process for the big issues facing our world?

Matthew Nisbet: This is really one of the big questions facing us.  How do we communicate effectively about complex problems and how do we engage the public in some type of collective decision-making about what should be done?  And I think the answer lies in investments in three areas. 

One is we have a problem with the media system.  The for-profit model of traditional news gathering is really in peril and we need to think creatively and we need to move forward assertively with innovations either in not-for-profit models for the news that are foundation, government, university supported. Or innovative models of information and idea dissemination like Big Think.  That is the brainchild of innovative entrepreneurs and supported by a combination of advertising and other funding sources. So we have to rethink what exactly is the future of the news media. 

The second thing we need to think about is, how are we educating people at the high school level, the junior college and the university level to be engaged citizens?  In particular how are we educating them about how to seek out information, how to critically assess and evaluate news, commentary and different types of information sources and how to use the many different types of digital media and tools to make personal choices and collective choices and I think we need to think about the curriculum from the high school forward in terms of building in of cross courses a curriculum of media literacy and media skills for students. 

And the third thing that we have to think about is communication is not enough.  Better media, better users of media is not going to solve this problem.  I think we need to kind of raise a conversation about are the institutions by which we make decisions at the federal… from a federal and national level to the state to the regional and the local.  Have these institutions failed in fundamental ways and what are creative, innovative ways to reinvent them to increase public input and to be able to actually reach some type of consensus about what should be done about these complex problems?  

Question: How would you reinvent government?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think one particular area that I’ll be taking a close look at in the Age of Engagement is many of these problems that we face in society and some of the biggest questions involve highly technical issues related to the environment, related to climate change; or fundamental questions involving ethics about some of the fastest growing areas of research, neuroscience, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, human genomics.

And one of the questions is these decisions have often been outside of the wider public eye.  They’ve been decided by regulators in government, people at federal agencies, scientists in industry. But these issues fundamentally affect and are too important to leave to scientists, members of government and industry to decide.  We have to think about how can we actively involve the public in this type of decision making and there is a number of emerging models that have really been developed in countries in Europe and Canada.  They’re called deliberative forums, consensus conferences, where they’re often sponsored by university, a government agency, sometimes underwritten by a foundation where you bring people together for a weekend or even sometimes as long as a week and you pose to them questions about an area of research, a topic such as nanotechnology.  They deliberate in small groups.  They ask questions of experts and at the end they then voice their opinion.  They reach some type of judgment and consensus about what should be done and we’re starting to experiment with those types of models here in the United States on issues like nanotechnology.  The next question is, is it merely enough that citizens have voiced their opinion, but should their opinion have real weight.  If the public is well informed about an issue and has deliberated and decided should that actually bear strongly on what type of actual government decision is made or even what kind of direction the science institutions or scientists might go in the research and I think that is a conversation we have yet to have.

Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

New models for media and better media literacy are important but not enough; we need to reexamine our public institutions, from local to federal levels.

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