When physics needs the public

28 September 2005

Herman White argues the case for public participation in the decision-making process for the International Linear Collider.

Decision-making in high-energy elementary particle-physics research is usually highly technical, sometimes political, and often very passionate. And now, in the 21st century, scientists have come to realize that the public not only has the right to know what science we do, but should also be involved in many decisions of that scientific work. This is precisely what the particle-physics community has set out to accomplish with the design process and creation of the world’s next big particle accelerator.


Outside of space exploration, it is sometimes assumed that large populations are not interested in science, but the International Linear Collider (ILC) is an accelerator that will collide particles of matter and antimatter to help solve some of the true mysteries of the quantum universe. So how can the public be involved in the design of such a complex facility?

In August, I was among the nearly 700 participants in the 2005 International Linear Collider Physics and Detector Workshop held in Snowmass, Colorado. A number of my colleagues around the world engaged in the global design effort have been studying the technical issues and understanding the limitations of the proposed facility for some years. Now, in addition to the physics, a communications group is focusing on how this facility will affect the public when completed, and how physicists should communicate our work to decision-makers and the public.

In many scientific disciplines, the research community often communicates to the public on laboratory experiments by reporting the benefits after the designs are completed, during the building of the apparatus (if any), and after the research results are assembled. For the ILC project, communication was a high priority from the very beginning. At the ILC workshop, Judy Jackson of the Fermilab Office of Public Affairs and a member of the ILC Communication Group invited Douglas Sarno, head of The Perspectives Group, Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia, to lead a seminar on the public-participation process.

At the seminar, Sarno instructed us on elements of the process: identify members of the public and the “stakeholders”; examine and include the public values; and seek input from all sides when issues arise. He helped us recognize the benefits of this effort in general, and showed how real participation in the process leads to decisions.

There can be a range of participation in this process, from minimal participation where the public is informed only of the general scientific goals and information, to the other end of the spectrum where the final decision on the project implementation is in the hands of the public. The former can be accomplished by reading materials, websites, public lectures and personal contacts, while the latter might additionally require ballots, elections, citizen referendums or chief-executive initiatives. For the ILC, the specifics of the ideal public-participation process lie somewhere in between, and of course input from the public is required to find the right level. When we think about access to materials, land use, ecology and economic impacts due to the resources that are required, large scientific projects are never isolated from the public.

I am now convinced that the ILC project will benefit from a high level of public participation. Because of the very long tradition of international participation in particle-physics research, and the international character of this project, the public-participation process should include all the countries and regions contributing to the project, taking into account the role of local communities. I believe our discussion helped those participating in this seminar gain a broader view of how the decisions concerning the ILC might include a public perspective, independent of region.

However, the ILC is a complex facility and the science that motivates the need for this facility is equally complex, which of course means that decisions are multifaceted and interwoven primarily with physics issues. Nevertheless, a host of other considerations and opportunities will include resource and design issues, communication, organization, a construction timeframe, the world-community effort and – usually before any actions – a decision. The level at which the public is included in this decision process could also be viewed as a complex question.

My experience in public communication leads me to conclude that involving the public early in the design and description of our scientific research, and continuing that involvement, is crucial to an effective partnership between the public and the scientific proponents of our research. Although it is a noble goal to teach particle physics to the public and government leaders, this may not always be necessary. It is important to convey the excitement and the impact of the ILC project on society, and to earnestly listen to the response of policy-makers and members of the public about all of our science. It is vital to gain and sustain the trust of the public, so that the inevitable changes in this research project will be embraced and perhaps even understood as a regular component of fundamental research.

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