The venue for the September FDA Nanotechnology Public Meeting was almost 20 miles outside of DC, at a new satellite campus of the University of Maryland. Despite the distance and an impossibly inconvenient public transportation route, the rooms were filled with about 300 of the same suits and skirts you’d see at any downtown DC meeting. What kind of “public” is this anyway?
The short answer is: “stakeholders.” Which includes industry analysts, investment trackers, lobbyists, policy wonks, watchdogs, think-tankers, the researchers who present the data, and me – an ex-archaeologist who tracks this ecclectic tribe and its invisible material culture.
One puzzle I keep attempting to reconcile every time I attend one of these meetings is how these policy publics intersect with our museum publics. You’d think that a similar question would be asked by the agencies holding these meetings as well. At what point do meetings about the public actually involve the public? Or are they already here – but in disguise?
I was included in a Nanotech Caucus briefing on Capitol Hill last March on the topic of public engagement. One of the first questions I asked was how many people in the audience had been in a science center or museum in the past year. Eighty percent of the people raised their hands. I wasn’t really surprised – this is DC, after all. To paraphrase an old saying, “you can’t swing a dead cat in DC without hitting a museum.”
But their response did make me think. Many of these people – the same staffers, lobbyists, and policy watchers I often come in contact with – are part of our museum publics. They all have families, many have kids, they often show visitors around town when family or friends come to visit the nation’s capital. It also made me adjust my talk. I talked to them more as visitors than as an abstract audience. I thought of them as parents, chaperones on field trips, the science-engaged adults I used to see at the Adults Night Out events in the museum where I used to work.
So how does this apply to the federal agency meetings intended for public input? The attendees at these, despite their alternate identities as museum visitors, only wear their professional personas at these meetings. Is it because they are in a certain type of context? Would there be other kinds of interactions and responses if these meetings were held in a science center? Would the forum format emerging in the NISE Net help bring out personal as well as professional opinions? What if our museums became centers for policy-engaged discussion about science topics as well?