The significance of a shift from a “deficit” model to two-way dialogues has long been a key theme in science communication and technoscience governance. The idea that the public should be engaged in issues related to science and technology, rather than simply receiving top-down information, has gone beyond academic debates to become prevalent in policy practices in many countries. However, as it has been repeatedly pointed out, the deficit model persists. Furthermore, different cultural contexts pose different challenges: Engagement can have different cultural meanings and take different forms to be effective, and the public and their relationship to technical expertise exist in widely divergent manners across societies. In thinking about the future of effective science communication, I first revisit a few key insights from science and technology studies (STS), a field that has played a role in the “deficit to dialogue” shift, in order to highlight why dialogue and engagement are productive, promising, and preferrable. I then proceed to discuss different challenges in enacting such a shift that I have observed in my research on Covid-19 responses and nuclear governance in Japan and the United States. Much of the initial intellectual debate on dialogue and engagement came out of the Western contexts, and their implementation presents different kinds of difficulties in non-Western contexts, in addition to familiar ones. For instance, in Japan, where technocracy has long been embraced, the idea of “citizens” as active agents in collective decision-making – a basic tenet of democracy – is not always wholeheartedly welcomed in practice. Some even consider dialogic activities as experts and officials not doing their job, rather than as democratic opportunities, especially in times of a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, productive expert-citizen collaboration and communication exist, and I will discuss such examples in the nuclear politics of both countries and their implications.
From early on, the rationale for citizen participation in science and technology was multifold: for instance, normative, instrumental, and substantive (Fiorino 1990). Empirically, this is still the case (Weingart et al. 2021). STS researchers have contributed to a shift towards engagement by showing how social and political factors shape science and technology, as well as their fundamentally constitutive role in society. Empirically and theoretically, they have problematized scientism, technological determinism, and essentialized views of technoscience in general, and showed that technoscience and society are mutually constitutive, or co-produced (Jasanoff 2004). These insights have raised an important question about decision-making: If the trajectory of science and technology is not pre-determined, and if they constitute and mediate every sphere of our social life, then shouldn’t decisions about them be more open to the public’s critical scrutiny and democratic input, rather than being left to technical experts, corporate leaders and political elites? Through numerous case studies, STS researchers have also demonstrated how lay citizens are capable not only of grasping technical matters that deeply affect them, but also of contributing input (e.g., local and embodied knowledge) that improves the effectiveness of policy-relevant knowledge (e.g., Epstein 1996; Wynne 1996; Callon et al. 2009). The views of science-society relations anchored in these insights acknowledge that making of technoscience is making of society and its future. They call for reflexivity and democratic engagement from a variety of actors, from lay citizens to journalists and teachers to experts and policymakers. In these views, effective science communication can not only help make technoscience more socially relevant and aligned with the public’s needs, but also potentially revitalize democratic deliberation and action themselves. To pursue such lofty goals, an understanding of political culture is crucial, and comparative analysis is a helpful tool for the purpose.