The Participation Model

Consider the dialogue model of science communication, in which the public takes a larger role in the discussion of scientific research. The participation model takes the next step, by allowing the public not only to provide feedback and perspective, but also to participate in research as the equals of scientists and mediators. Much more so than in the deficit and dialogue models, the public can assist in every stage of the scientific process, from shaping the issue and selecting research questions and methods, to analyzing research findings.

“Whereas the deficit model focuses on the transmission of knowledge, and whereas the dialogue model focuses on the discussion of the implications of knowledge, the participation model of science communication focuses on the co-production of knowledge by scientific experts and the lay public” (Bartock, pg 16).

Arguably the most beneficial aspect of the participation model is the creation of a shared identity and sense of equality among participants. Instead of categorizing those involved into stakeholder groups, such as the scientists, mediators, and the public, the participation model puts everyone on an even playing ground. The unifying character of the model encourages an increased sense of self-value among participants and creates the added bonus of providing participants with a more intense and in-depth education about the subject at hand.

Removing the socially constructed barriers between the stakeholders of science communication can then lead to less stress, less controversy, and more solutions.

Because it promotes the democratization of science and its communication, the participation model could even result in a public that is more open-minded toward scientific policies, and perhaps, on the logistics side of things, more efficient and profitable research projects.

While this model of science communication can be used in practically every field of study, it is still a relatively new concept, having only become prevalent in the mid-2000s. There’s no doubt that the participation model is the way to go in terms of communicating science, but like other models, it is imperfect. For one, lack of funding is already a terrifying threat looming over many researchers. Introducing public participation to already expensive projects may be like adding buckets of water to a sinking ship.

By Clay Banks, provided by Unsplash.

In today’s culture, the average member of the public tends to show disinterest (or avoid entirely) participation in long meetings, minute details and an alarming amount of math, all of which are par for the course in the execution of research. Even after the completion of the experimentation, the analyzing, writing, rewriting, and publishing process can wear on the most experienced and enthusiastic scientists. If the public wanted to be doing research, there’s a good chance they’d already be doing it—or they’d expect some compensation for their troubles.

When’s the last time you took even a short survey without the promise of some reward, like free pizza or a gift card raffle?

Those kinds of incentives just aren’t in the budget of most researchers. The inclusion of lay people also calls for time, effort and funds to bring them up to speed on the research; projects can be general or insanely specific, so those without a background on the subject will require enough training to get them started, if not more.

By Startaê Team, provided by Unsplash.

With no incentive other than a contribution to scientific discovery and communication (and the promise of hard, often frustrating work), there might be a limited pool of participants to pull from, and those willing lay people would likely consist of a sample that is non-representative of the public as a whole. On top of this, there’s the very real prospect of individuals and organizations paying participants to push their own agendas, while blocking participation of others. Human bias and selfishness know no bounds, if there is something to be gained.

Dan Kahan (2010) writes, “it would not be a gross simplification to say that science needs better marketing. Unlike commercial advertising, however, the goal of these techniques is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information” (pg 3).

So, while the participation model is ideal in many ways, these flaws throw it into the line of fire if simply for reasons of feasibility.

Some scholars suggest that students, regardless of major, should pursue graduate-level education in programs outside their own. This could include courses on science journalism, science law and policy, or even basic scientific method and procedures.

On the other hand, mediators and scientists should make a greater effort to widen their audiences and connect with them, rather than regurgitating information into the abyss of the knowledge gap.

In a perfect world, people would rely on meaningful dialogue and data rather than intuition, emotions and fads to form their opinions. Oversimplification is an issue in need of solving and laying the blame on any one stakeholder group is not going to solve any problems. No stakeholder group is better or worse than another, but rather, they must all work together as equals to discover the secrets of the universe.


Participation photo by Marcos Luiz, provided by Unsplash.


Bartock, L., & Rickard, Laura N. (2015). Walking the Talk? Examining the Practical Application of Models of Science Communication in Long-term Ecological Research Sites, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2010). A Critical Appraisal of Models of Public Understanding of Science: Using Practice to Inform Theory. In Communicating Science: New Agendas in Communication (pp. 11-39). New York, NY: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203867631

Irvin, R., & Stansbury, J. (2004). Citizen Participation in Decision Making: Is It Worth the Effort? Public Administration Review, 64(1), 55-65.

Kahan, Dan. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 463(7279), 296-297.

Nisbet, M., & Scheufele, D. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 1767-1778.

Trench, B. (2008). Towards an analytical framework of science communication models. In Communicating Science in Social Contexts: New Models, New Practices (pp. 119-135). Springer Netherlands.

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