• Louise Dunn

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Communicating and engaging effectively with the public during a public health crisis can save lives, prevent harm and reduce the impact in terms of social and economic costs, as exemplified during the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. This qualitative research focuses upon the approach of UK scientific organisations to communications and engagement with the public about controversial issues of science, using vaccine safety as a case study. Despite widespread public education and engagement policies adopted by scientific organisations in the UK since 1985, academics in science and technology studies (STS) allege that the scientific community does not meaningfully engage with the public and has failed to incorporate social and value concerns into discussions about new science and technologies (Trench, 2006; Wynne, 2014).

Using critical theory, I set out to better understand the disconnect identified in the STS literature between policy and practice through interviews with senior communications and engagement professionals and an analysis of science communications materials, including websites, job descriptions and other public documents. Using an analytical framework based upon Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action, I identified key themes within five diverse aspects of communications and engagement practice: context; conduct; content; construction of knowledge; and competence of the participants (the ‘5Cs’).

Based upon this analysis, I argue that the ideal conditions for rational discourse around science are far more difficult to achieve than academic commentators have previously acknowledged, for a variety of cultural, political and organisational reasons. Whilst individuals working in scientific organisations are motivated to engage with the public, they face internal barriers to action as well as a hostile and difficult external environment. A variety of factors are inhibiting co-ordination across scientific institutions and reducing the effectiveness of engagement and communication to the public from reliable and authoritative sources during a scientific controversy.

This research provides insight into the underlying and perhaps unacknowledged cultural and social influences that place constraints on the ability of scientific organisations and scientists to engage in meaningful scientific discourse with the public. These observations could inform professional practice as well as provide avenues for further research.
Date of Award1 Feb 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Edge Hill University
SupervisorLEON CULBERTSON (Director of Studies), FIONA HALLETT (Supervisor), JUNE JONES (Supervisor) & PAUL REYNOLDS (Director of Studies)


  • science communications
  • public engagement
  • Habermas
  • controversy
  • COVID19
  • scientific culture

Cite this