Ann Grand started her working life in the late 1970s as biology teacher. She retired after ten years but continued to be passionate about the excitement and exhilaration of science. Later, she took a degree with the Open University, studying topics from geology to systems theory. In 2003, she founded the Bristol Science Café and, in her spare time, sustains the work of the national and international network of science cafés, running the website and supporting and mentoring new café organizers. In January 2009, she started work on an interdisciplinary PhD research project, based at the University of the West of England, Bristol, seeking ways to bring Open Science and public engagement together in a fruitful and symbiotic way. The research project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
(Ann would like to make it clear that the opinions and views expressed in this interview are entirely personal and nothing she has said should be taken as indicative of the views either of UWE, Bristol or EPSRC.)
This interview was conducted by Norm Nason and was originally published in the website, Machines Like Us, on July 10, 2009. © Copyright Norm Nason—all rights reserved. No portion of this interview may be reproduced without written permission from Norm Nason.
NORM: Welcome, Ann. It's a great privilege having you here.
ANN: The privilege is all mine. I’ve been an admirer of your work with this site and community for some time—it’s strangely odd to find myself a contributor, but a great pleasure.
NORM: I want to get to the specifics of your interests and work, but first, let me ask you a very general question: What is science?
ANN: Crumbs! Start with the easy one, Norm.
As the great John Lennon almost said: 'Science is the answer and you know that for sure'.
Almost from the moment we are born, we create narratives to answer the hypotheses we make about the world. For the very young, those narratives are satisfactorily peopled with fairies and spirits but as we grow older, we become—or should become—dissatisfied with these shape-shifting phantasms.
Science is a way of asking questions that dispel the phantasms; a way of thinking about the world that eventually comes down on truth. Which is not to say that the truth doesn't shift about sometimes (Newton thought he'd sorted out physics); none the less, science is the way we work towards truth, rather than settling for mere belief. Facts need to be challenged and evidence needs to be replicable. The willingness to change one's mind in the face of new evidence is a strength, not a weakness.
And it's fun and beautiful and exciting and compelling and thrilling and stirring and stimulating. There's wonder in unweaving the rainbow; awe in contemplating the patient panting of the stromatolites and astonishing majesty in the austere truthfulness of natural selection.
NORM: Your inspiring response might come as a surprise to members of the general public who consider science to be mysterious, dry, and incomprehensible. But then, your career has always been concerned with bridging the gap between the scientific and public communities. Why is this important to you, and what benefits can ordinary people realize from being engaged in scientific efforts?
ANN: I'd be willing to bet those same people who claim that science is mysterious, dry and incomprehensible are also avid fans of David Attenborough's beautiful television programs. 'Ah', they might say, 'that's not Science, that's Nature'. Why is nature allowed to inspire enchantment but the science of which nature is a part not? What is it that turns science from amazement into the slave labour of rote learning? Sadly, I fear the answer may be that science has often been made dull and boring by science teachers—or, to be fair, by the demands of testing-oriented science curricula.
This is dreadful news for our culture. Scientists are the most creative people: perceptive and experimental engineers; ingenious and discerning psychologists; insightful and intuitive biologists… passionate people, dedicated to turning over the stones of life to find out what’s beneath.
From the time we sit on the floor with our wooden bricks and discover that the little one will sit nicely on top of the big one but the big one just keeps falling off the little one (albeit with a satisfying and parent-irritating thud), we are all engaged in scientific processes. It's just that many of us don't recognize that we are. I could go on about how useful it is to understand the way the universe works—what's really happening inside your computer or your digestive system—but to be honest, that's not the point. The point is that we are here for such a brief, flickering moment that we owe it ourselves to comprehend as much as we possibly can before we disappear.
NORM: When it comes down to it, that's what I believe as well. There is so very much to learn, and so little time in which to learn it. I don't know how anyone could not be curious about the universe in which we live, and not strive to comprehend as much about it as possible.
You have noted that very few lay people read learned journals or go to scientific conferences, and yet passive viewers of many science websites (including Machines Like Us) typically far outnumber registered users—suggesting that science content is interesting to a wider audience. What factors hinder public engagement in science, and how can they be overcome? Is it up to lay people to break down these barriers, or does this responsibility fall on the shoulders of the scientific community?
ANN: I don't have any evidence for why 'ordinary' people are reluctant to engage with science—I'm searching for research findings on that—but I have some thoughts. I live near Bristol, where the university puts on a huge range of interesting evening talks and lectures. Yet it takes all the courage I can muster to insert myself across the threshold of the Great Hall to go to one. Universities are daunting, despite their best efforts.
But perhaps the public is daunting for scientists, who give all sorts of reasons for why they're reluctant to get involved in public engagement activities: 'my research is too controversial'; 'my colleagues won't take me seriously if I do it'; 'I don't have the right skills'; 'it takes time away from my real work'; 'the media will misquote me'.
Of course, I shouldn't be making this false divide between 'them' and 'us'. There's no such sharp rift between 'scientists' and 'common people': rather, there is a continuum from scientist, to skilled amateur, to interested individual, to sciencephobe. So as you might guess, I think there is a shared responsibility to engage with science, though I also think those of us at the sciency end of the line have to be willing to take the heavier end of the load, if only because if our work is publicly funded, it is our responsibility to make sure that the results of that work are disseminated as widely as possible.
I should say very quickly here that I absolutely don't mean 'disseminate' as in 'stand on high and pour down our wisdom into empty vessels'; I mean share, talk about, discuss, create narratives, converse, interweave our texts into new ideas.
As for how to break down the barriers, well we just have to… um… remove the barriers and stand everyone on the same floor, whether that's physically, as happens in science cafes, or metaphorically, as happens in excellent websites like this one.
NORM: I don't have the statistics at hand, but lay-people tend to be more religious than scientists by a wide margin. Everyone has a need to understand the universe and their place in it, and while science can explain much about the world in which we live, becoming fluent in its language requires a substantial investment of time, effort, and resources; a high level of education and funds to pay for that education.
To those with neither the time, money, intellect, or inclination—religion offers more readily available explanations for unexplained phenomena. I have often wondered if this may partly explain the gap between scientists and lay people.
I would like to ask you more about the obstacles scientists face when engaging the public, but first, let's talk about one of the success stories: your founding of the Bristol Science Café. What exactly is a Science Café, and how does it work?
ANN: I take your point about the resources—of all descriptions—needed to become a fluent science speaker. (Although in countries like the UK, with a largely state-funded education system, financial resources, at least, should be a less pressing issue.)
However, there is also the matter of seeing the need: of recognizing why it is important to have that other voice. I can stagger along in a second language and have a nodding acquaintance with two others, partly because I like the challenge of learning new languages but mostly because our language not only clothes our thoughts but shapes them. We ought to try to hear the other voice untranslated.
But one has to draw the line somewhere. I absolutely cannot speak mathematics. Can't so much as order a cup of coffee in it.
Sorry—went a bit off the point there. Maybe not all of us can become scientists but we can all nurture our curiosity about science. Science impinges on every part of our lives, in every culture, in every part of the world—it's something we ought to have an opinion about.
A science cafe (or bar des sciences, science ka adda, wissenschafts-café, science exchange, science in the pub or any one of a number of titles, depending on where you are) is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, people meet to discuss the latest ideas in science and technology which are changing our lives. The movement started in 1997 in France and in 1998 in the UK, so my starting of the Bristol cafe came a little way into their growth. Now, there are are about fifty cafes in the UK and around 250 world-wide, that I know of (I have to say that—every few weeks or so I hear about a cafe in XYZ city that's been going on very happily for years but unheard of by the wider world).
Cafés Scientifiques take place in all sorts of venues: cafés, bars, pubs, theatres, restaurants, museums, arts centres, galleries—but the uniting feature is that wherever they happen, it is always outside a formal academic context. There is no sense or flavor of the lecture hall: the venues are places where anyone can walk in off the street and feel comfortable in doing so. Changing the nature of the venue has an astonishingly liberating effect on the nature of the discussion: in a classroom, you expect to be taught; in a lecture hall, you expect to be lectured at but in a cafe, you expect to have a conversation.
Cafe speakers are typically practicing scientists, scholars or writers, actively involved in the field under discussion. A classic café starts with a short introductory talk by the speaker, lasting somewhere between ten and twenty-five minutes. And most cafés eschew technology, so no slides, microphones or dimmed lights divide speaker and audience. A short break follows, to allow glasses to be re-charged and discussions to start. Then, there is an hour or so of conversation (questions, comments, thoughts and opinions) shared between the speaker and the audience, the audience and the speaker and the audience and the audience. At its best, this interaction is spontaneous, informal and symmetrical—definitely 'dinner party' rather than 'after-dinner speech'.
Having said all that, science cafes have no rules: Cafe Scientifique is an organization with very little organization; a loose network of independent people doing it because they are passionate about opportunities to engage with science, bound together by a set of common, core principles and boundless enthusiasm. This apparent anarchy is a very real strength: it’s a self-sustaining and cheap format, robust, flexible and simple, which means it can find a home across countries and across cultures. You can have a cafe in a microbrewery in Denver, a city centre cinema in Mumbai or sitting round a communal pot of malwa in rural Uganda and it works every time.
NORM: Science Cafés sound wonderful—and just the thing to attract a shy but interested public. I have never heard of one near where I live here in the States—but then, I don't get out much! How does one find a Science Café, and learn about what topics will be discussed? Are web directories available?
ANN: In the States the best website is www.sciencecafes.org. Elsewhere, try the site I look after—www.cafescientifique.org which has information about as many cafes as I can find and links through to national networks in other countries, such as France.
As I always say to people who tell me there isn't one near where they live—"start one!" If I can do it, anyone can. Both those websites have information on starting a cafe and I'm always ready to offer support and help to the best of my ability.
NORM: Here in the United States NASA's budget is largely determined—if indirectly—by public opinion. As was shown with the demise of the Apollo and numerous other space programs, if the public is not engaged, funding dries up and the program dies. Knowing this, NASA makes a great effort to interest and excite taxpayers who pay for its many manned and robotic space programs. Clearly, the agency has recognized that engaging the public is not only the right thing to do—it necessary for their own survival.
But what about other, lesser-known or less glamorous research projects? Should government-sponsored science programs that do little to engage the public receive funding as readily as those that do? Should public engagement be a prerequisite to programs seeking public funding? What are the pros and cons of open science public engagement?
ANN: One of the things that astonishes me about the magical world wide web is the abundance and excellent quality of its niches. It doesn't matter whether you're fascinated by carrots or carats, coal-mining or Coleridge, somewhere out there, there exists a like-minded soul, ready and willing to foregather with you on of www's byways. There's no such thing as less-glamorous research. Someone, somewhere, wants to know about it.
Most research funders now make a public engagement component part of the funding requirement—often, a specific allocated percentage. And for me, it goes without saying that researchers on publicly-funded programs have a responsibility to disseminate the results of their work as widely as possible. But we the public have an equal duty to get off our bottoms and understand the scientific method and its intellectual background, so that we are able to appreciate and follow research that’s inevitably tentative, incomplete, unexplained and subject to revision. In other words, to engage with the science we are paying for. The one needs the other.
Taking public engagement seriously by allocating serious money should mean that public engagement work is a respected and valued part of the scientists' 'real' work and something to which they are both willing and able to devote real time and real intellectual effort. This hasn't always been the case—maybe, for some people is still isn't—I've already talked about reasons scientists have given for being unwilling to get involved in public engagement work. Happily, scientists also have positive reasons to become involved—recognizing such work as important, worthy of their peers' recognition and likely to improve their scientific standing. Open science also raises considerations relating to peer-review, precedence, reputation and trust. Some worry that there are dangers if science opens up and places its unreviewed, unmediated data, in public view and open to speculation. And then there is the fear of being 'scooped'; that someone else will dash in and snatch the results of your work (although in many ways Open Science offers good protection—for example automatic time stamping of, for example, entries on a wiki).
Openness is the great strength of the scientific method Peter Medewar, in his Advice to a Young Scientist said: "The agreed house rule of the little group of close colleagues I have always worked with has always been 'Tell everyone everything you know'; and I don't know anyone who came to any harm by falling in with it."
That encapsulates the 'pros' of Open Science in a nutshell: understanding drives out fear. There's no point in being afraid that robots will take over the world when they actually can't take over a woolly rug.
NORM: There are some programs—SETI@home, for instance—that not only engage the public—but rely on the public's active participation for their program's success. These projects take advantage of distributed computer processing—the use of Internet-connected home computers (usually running free applications), to collectively download and analyze data.
According to Wikipedia, SETI@home currently has over 5.2 million participants worldwide and over 334,155 active computers in the system (out of a total of 1.8 million) in 210 countries. As of August 4, 2008, SETI@home had the ability to compute over 528 TeraFLOPS. For comparison, Blue Gene (one of the world's fastest supercomputers) peaks at just over 596 TFLOPS, with a sustained rate of 478 TFLOPS.
I mention this because it shows a way that the public can actively participate in exciting scientific research. If SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—ever does discover intelligent life in outer space, the participating public can take partial credit for making it happen.
Are there other ways that the public can actively participate in science?
ANN: SETI@home! I'd completely forgotten about SETI@home. I must look it up!
Much Open Science is designed by scientists for scientists as ways to share methods, information and results with each other, within the context of existing research groups and organizations. That's not to say that we ordinary people can't look in on projects such as the Open Science project, which largely works in theoretical chemistry; OpenWetWare, from MIT, a wiki which links bio-engineering laboratories around the world or myExperiment, which largely works in the field of bioinformatics. And I doubt you need me to mention Open Source software.
But there are increasing opportunities for what is starting to be called 'public participation in research'. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that one of the leading projects is in astronomy—Copernicus was a part-time astronomer and Kepler made his fortune from horoscopes. And Darwin wasn't exactly a professional scientist either.
The Galaxy Zoo project is using a corps of some 200,000 volunteers to classify images of around a quarter of a million galaxies photographed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Having tried and failed to analyze these data by computer, the astronomers (from Oxford, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Yale and Johns Hopkins universities) recruited the power of many human brains instead. Not only have these amateurs produced a wealth of valuable data that has supported the publications (nine in 2008 alone) of the academics involved but, in May 2009, the first paper inspired and written by a group of the volunteers themselves was accepted for publication.
Diybio is a network of citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who operate often-sophisticated home laboratories. But if you don't want to get into bio-engineering—or you'd like to get the kids involved in some practical biology—the Open University’s recently launched Evolution Megalab takes the process of public participation in research a step further on: you can collaborate in data collection (about the distribution of shell types in the banded snail), upload your data to the project but also take the collated data away and analyze it for yourself.
And although I don't have any concrete evidence—yet—I have a strong conviction that amateur scientists made, and are making, great contributions to artificial intelligence, robotics, computer science and electronics. I well remember how Creatures became a vast, worldwide scientific experiment in artificial life when its million world-wide users raveled the Norn genome and knitted it carefully back up again as they explored the artificial life of their pets.
I hope there will always be a place for people outside academia to do real science.
NORM: You bring up an interesting point. It has been suggested that in the near future it may be possible for small group—or even a single individual—to engineer lethal microorganisms capable of killing thousands or more. Lone hackers routinely disrupt secure computer networks, and the potential for communications and power grid sabotage is very real. Is it dangerous to have a scientifically literate public?
A scientifically stupid public is what would really be dangerous. Malice is more likely to come from ignorance than from enlightenment. The more people who understand how things work, how to make things happen and how to stop things happening the better. Everything comes with risks but as long as risks are outweighed by benefits, the enterprise is worthwhile. I own—and every day use—a machine that has the potential to kill people: a car. Nearly 3000 people were killed on UK roads in 2007; around 300 were murdered. On those numbers, we should ban cars, not guns and knives, but of course we don't because cars also have enormous benefits.
Democracy is the best system of government we've got because it puts a little bit of power in everyone's hands. Maybe these things you have mentioned add up to the democratization of danger but it is matched by a democratization of responsibility. People working in their kitchens have re-created the gene sequence of the 1918 Spanish flu virus. They did this partly because they wanted to expose how it could be done but, interestingly, they are also working collectively to develop an ethical code for what they do. Scientific information has always been freely available. It's just that, in the past, for most people it has come to them mediated through newspapers, television or radio; sometimes well, sometimes less well. Open Science is about exposing the process of science; I'm interested in seeing what happens when people have direct access to the science for themselves.
Global warming is an interesting example of choice and responsibility. Science has known about the issues for a long time now and the evidence has been presented over and over again. But much of the public still hasn't changed its attitudes and its actions very much, in large part due to a lack of basic understanding. Many might be acting more responsibly if they really understood the consequences of their choices and actions. It matters: the unintended misconduct of billions of ordinary, well-meaning but unaware folk could easily end up wiping out far more people than the actions of a few educated psychopaths.
NORM: For a variety of reasons women have historically been under-represented in science; their contributions have been limited, for the most part, by a male-dominated society. Since women certainly equal men in intelligence and their capacity to do good science, we have collectively missed out on the may discoveries and advances they would surely have made if they had been equally represented in the past. I feel that by hindering women's contribution to science, our society has limited—and to some extent still is limiting—scientific progress and it's potential benefits to human-kind.
Science is now more open to women than it has been at any time in the past, but what can we do to assure that Open Science remains open to all? Beyond that—how would you like to see Open Science progress in the future?
ANN: The issue of access to Open Science is crucial. Access is always crucial: girls' access to good education is what defines the contribution they make to their society. Access to Open Science is largely dependent on access to the Internet and although that's far from equitable globally, it is, none the less, increasing world-wide. Presently, Africa has about 6% of the world's Internet users, compared to North America's 75% but annual growth is at over 1000% in Africa; it's a 'mere' 130% in North America. (Incidentally, isn't it just mind-blowingly, staggeringly, fabulous that I can sit at my desk and instantly find astounding information like that?)
Making methods, data and other information widely available allows for massive collaborations, more productive science and the emergence of new ideas. Cameron Neylon (one the UK's strongest advocates of Open Science) says that Open Science enables previously unimaginable 'geographically and temporally widespread collaborations, the traditional journal club can now span continents, and the smallest details of what is happening in a laboratory can be shared’.
Of course, access is about more than being able to get to a site. I can access Drexler University's UsefulChem but I have absolutely no idea what most of it means. Open Science is largely designed for scientists by scientists: it doesn't innately support the more personal, comprehensible, narrative structure that is perhaps more appropriate for public engagement. (I'm not saying the public is stupid or that we need to have things explained in a nursery-rhyme way, just that we and scientists perhaps have different approaches. The public need to work on their approach as much as scientists do on theirs.)
I've already talked about my work with Cafe Scientifique; work that's usually classed as being in the field of 'public engagement with science'. However, that's something of a misnomer because what it is often about is public engagement with scientists, science personalities, science issues and science policy. PE encompasses a range of activities: some indirect, such as writing (books, newspaper articles) and broadcasting; some direct, such as public lectures, informal events, children’s activities. Whether direct or indirect, they are all about scientists explaining, interpreting, elucidating, amplifying. Even if the scientists’ intention is to engage on an equal level rather than give-of-their-wisdom, these types of activities still involve scientists mediating between their work and the public’s engagement with it.
What interests me is what happens when—as is the case with Open Science—people are able directly to engage with the actual science. And not only that but to feed back into that science. What (without involving themselves in masses of extra work) do scientists have to do to turn incomprehensible snapshot data sets and lab notes into narratives that we can understand? What do we have to do in return? It's no use getting over the hurdle of making a simple and direct way for scientists and the public to engage together if the tools we ask each other to use are uncomfortable and restrictive.
An interface between open science and public engagement is clearly an excellent opportunity for both science and the public. However, it does seem to present some significant challenges. Is there, I wonder, a place for a middle-man? MLU shows us that there are more ways of being an expert than by holding a qualification, as does the thriving community of amateur roboticists. Could these 'experts by experience' be part of that interaction? Could they (perhaps in return for access to 'real' lab data) be the people who translate and narrate the science for public consumption and then feed back their analyses into the science so that they become integrated with and beneficial for the experimental work? I suspect there are lots of people who'd love to be part of such an enterprise. But you know more about that than I do, Norm!
NORM: As you might expect, I very much like your idea of having "experts by experience" act as interfaces between scientists and the public. It's something I try to facilitate with Machines Like Us, and this was the main reason for MLU's inception. You're certainly right: there are a lot of people who would love to be part of such an enterprise. The challenge has been keeping out pseudo-science. In order to act as gatekeeper between real science and the paranormal, the mystical?, and the mythical—one must hold reason and evidence-based conclusions in the highest regard. It's a standard I firmly adhere to; it's what the scientific method is all about.
In an interview with Edge, British philosopher Anthony C. Grayling said:
"Everybody's got to be a participant in this conversation about what's happening in science—trying to understand it, be informed about it —and to be a participant in deciding how we go forward with these developments. In order for that to happen, more people have to be more informed about science. We have a problem at the moment, which is that too few people go on from school to study science at university.
"The point here is not about making more scientists necessarily, but making more people who are competent to observe what's happening in science, to be interested in reading about it, to keep abreast of developments, to be excited by what is happening in science. And as responsible and informed citizens of this world of ours, to be part of the discussion about what we should and shouldn't do with our science.
"The big question in this respect is: how are we going to reorganize science education in school and how are we going to encourage more people to take more interest in science? And, indeed, to encourage more scientists to talk to the public about what they're doing in science and what they are thinking about. So the big question for me here is, how are we going to make science, which belongs to everybody, which is important to everybody, available to everybody so that everybody can be a party, in one way or another—whether as a spectator or as a participant—in this enormous adventure?"
As we conclude our conversation, Ann, how do you respond to Mr. Grayling's assessment, and the final questions he posed?
ANN: Let's hope the world can supply some big answers to Grayling's big questions. It's important that we do.
Big answers… hmm… so I'm going to start by focussing on a tiny word—that final 'or'. Why divide between 'us' and 'them'?—we are all spectators; we are all participants. We participate and spectate to varying degrees and from varying angles. We're participants at one time and spectators at another. That's what makes science such an enormously big adventure—there's no way of not being part of it.
I've been musing about trust in the last few days. Haven't got very far but I hope it goes without saying that trust and respect underpin the whole enterprise of science. If we're going to make it possible for everyone to come to the science party we have to be quite clear about where the boundaries are. It's going to be a struggle at first and probably needs editorial control, but in the long run it's an important battle that needs to be fought in the open, and where better to fight it than in discussion forums? Every time someone says something stupid (as opposed to just innocently naïve, which everyone should look upon with sympathy, help and understanding) and a bunch of people come back at them with solid, reasoned arguments about why they're talking nonsense, it strengthens the rational argument and raises people's trust in those who defend rationality, making them more likely to be listened to in future. Meanwhile the silly idea gets the brush-off next time it occurs, and people learn to be a bit more thoughtful before they dare comment. Even for the silent majority—those who prefer to observe rather than join in—it's important to see this battle waged, so that they can tell the difference between science and pseudo-science—there's nowhere else for them to experience the distinction.
It can be done. EBay and Amazon have established metrics for trust between buyer and seller, to take a small example. Or what about Wikipedia? Nobody would have believed Wikipedia could become such a comprehensive and trustworthy source under such anarchic conditions, but they've only had to make small adjustments to its policing as experience has shown them to be needed. Science sites may need to find ways to encourage the same kind of self-healing, for instance by allowing people to develop some numerical measure of trust in the eyes of readers, and/or being able to vote off threads and comments that spoil the intellectual value of the discussion. Trying to find ways to facilitate such a self-organizing 'economy of arguments' is one of the things that I'll be interested in over the coming few years.
Grayling's question about education is huge. Encouraging people to take more interest in science has motivated me since the long-ago days when I was a teacher. I think we need to stop tinkering and recognize that science education (maybe all education?) needs fundamental change. Time to release education—and teachers—from the shackles placed on it, probably by politics. Teachers used to be people of passions, whose fervor for trilobites or analogue computers or lesser spotted bee orchids or Jane Austen's juvenilia spilled over into the rest of their teaching and swept up their pupils into enthusiasms of their own. That was true education. OK, you used to have to have an exam at the end to check how much you'd understood but now it looks as though school is just about endless tests. There could hardly be a better way to put people off learning. By the time they reach adulthood, the Pavlovian association between intellectual activity and pain has been irrevocably burned into their brains. But science fares worse than arts subjects, partly because science requires more intellectual rigor and partly because educators have failed to find ways to help people see the deep beauty in nature. My personal view is that too much public engagement activity tries to peddle science through extrinsic motivation—whizz-bang "demonstrations" and other forms of hype, which has simply eclipsed the real reasons why scientific understanding is aesthetically satisfying.
Possibly science looks a bit big and scary. But perhaps it's a question of horizons. Many people would back off in horror if you suggested they learnt to fly a plane—too complicated, too technical, not for me. But they'll happily climb into a car and learn to drive, which is not that much easier. It's just that more people on your street own cars than airplanes.
Science needs to be out there in full view, for full participation. We shouldn't relegate engagement to social and ethical issues (though they are important) but build it in to all of science, from the basics upwards. We can only hope to think usefully about the issues if we understand the fundamental ideas and observations that led to those issues. Forums provide places where people can discuss this sort of thing and the knowledgeable can help the less knowledgeable. They can offer a low threshold to engagement, including encouraging children and teenagers to contribute, without descending to meretricious tricks and stratagems. They can support the development of trust and status among amateur enthusiasts, who can help bridge the gap between "ordinary folk" and "the academics" (and preferably help them rid themselves of their unfair nerdy, sad image). The basics are already there. MLU is a great example of a site that is gaining huge momentum through its utility, reliability, approachability and community-building.