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Policy and Practice
Closing the gap between science and society? The case for the Kilburn Debates
John Miles


This article updates an earlier report (GR, 2009) on six research presentations, delivered in an older people's resource centre in Camden, London, under the heading the 'Kilburn Debates' between September 2008 and June 2009. The older people attending were made up of centre-users, members of Kilburn Older Voices Exchange (KOVE), and the Camden Quality of Life Panel. The project was managed for the British Society of Gerontology by Mel Wright and myself. It reflected Mel's involvement in the community with KOVE and drew on material and political support from Camden. The BSG's own objectives centred on an interest in new partnerships and on the dissemination of research.

On the face of it, community engagement with older people, whether measured by the extent of the structures now available, or the numbers of people involved, is booming. Yet this is also a period which has seen inequality in later life worsen significantly. Community development, some argue, has been co-opted: 'we risk... developing practice that reinforces discrimination whilst still waving the banner of justice' (Ledwith, 2007). For successful organisations it is as important to appear to address neo-liberal objectives like choice and empowerment, as to make any real impact with respect to social justice. By calling these sessions 'debates' we signalled that the dissemination of research should go beyond consultation to accomodate dissent and deliberation. By holding the events in a local authority resource centre we challenged the lazy assumption that public services are by definition 'stigmatising' and exclusive. While the participants included 'activists', 'concerned citizens', 'service-users', and people attending just out of interest, we assumed these identities were neither fixed nor exclusive, and could vary for the individual from topic to topic.

The local partners brought their campaigning, policy and service practice interests. The academics, while meeting the requirements of the Research Assessment Exercise with respect to their findings, were also engaging in what was formerly known as 'extra-mural education'. The Kilburn Debates were a radical interpretation of the 'social inclusion' pathway set out for universities by Chris Phillipson and Jim Ogg (Universities UK, 2010), encouraging academics to 'close the gap between science and society' (FUTURAGE, 2008).

The gap between science and society

Science, or, specifically, social science is an important resource within the processes of public reason (Sen, 1999). We presented the Debates as an opportunity to learn 'how research about ageing affects our everyday lives', and presenters were asked to focus on their methodologies, and their development of a research question. In the background is the controversy about 'the public understanding of science', which goes back to the 1980s, when great concern was expressed by the Royal Society (1985) about 'public ignorance'. Their top-down response was criticised (Wynne, 1996) for neglecting or down-grading 'lay knowledge', and what people know by experience. A change of emphasis, geared towards democratic engagement, was captured by the House of Lords 'Inquiry into Science and Society' (2000). Their lordships considered that 'our inquiry... has had wide appeal and resonance among the scientists, educationists and members of the public who have appeared before us'. The official position now emphasises a conversational approach carried out on equal terms. But over the last decade, the pendulum has swung back and forth between 'engagement' and 'understanding'. Recently, in the UK, consideration of the nature and use of scientific evidence, has been influentially popularised by the Guardian columnist, Ben Goldacre. KOVE's own campaigns (KOVE, 2006) have run into difficulties with 'lay knowledge', when the tendency of some service-users to attribute service failure entirely to the competence or attitude of front-line staff has restricted the wider potential of an inquiry. 

With the Kilburn Debates we hoped to establish an over-arching dialogue and a process of respectful engagement so that the 'public understanding of social science' could be effectively linked to the pursuit of social justice. Hence our concern to selectively invite participants from different backgrounds (see the debates programme). We hoped that listening to research presentations would allow some recognition of, and engagement with, differences of gender, class, ethnicity, and capacity - if not directly among the participants, then in reflecting on the communities they represented, or served. We think the emphasis in community engagement on 'hearing the voice of older people' needs to shift to participants paying more attention to each other, a process requiring information and empathy. Lastly, engagement with academic researchers would be part of the Debates 'constructive value' and offer a chance for activists and 'experts by experience' to develop greater 'civic social science literacy' (Nisbet, 2005).

The Debates programme as it finally took place

October 28th, 2008 
Tony Warnes and Maureen Crane, University of Sheffield

How it is that older people are and become homeless: why it shouldn't happen and why it does happen

November 18th, 2008 
Debora Price, 
King's College, London

Measuring poverty – what makes an older person poor?

January 20th, 2009 
Jaco Hoffman, 
Institute of Ageing, Oxford University

Responding to ageing in Africa – factors relating to HIV/AIDS,
care-giving and social protection in the Republic of South Africa

February 24th, 2009 
Sheila Peace, 
the Open University

Using spaces in public places: what are the issues when getting out and about? Do the generations mix?

April 28th, 2009 
Andy and Helen Alsaszewski, 
University of Kent

Providing information or developing effective communication? How professionals and stroke survivors interact

June 25th, 2009 (am) 
Bridget Penhale, 
University of Sheffield

Countering elder abuse: practical responses and policy issues

June 25th, 2009 (pm) 
Joan Darwin and Lisa Pickering, 
University of Liverpool

Learning from those affected by the safeguarding process in one borough

The evaluation of the Debates

Retrospectively, the presenters were asked to fill in a questionnaire. Eight participants also made written responses while several others either took part in two short focus groups or made comments to centre staff and to Mel and myself. There were exit interviews with key staff in the Council and with the chair of KOVE. The material was supplemented by the viewing of sequences of film shot by Mel during the debate on southern Africa with Jaco Hoffman, but this account relies a good deal on our self-reporting. The limitations of data gathered in this way is self-evident and symptomatic of a project carried out on a voluntary basis - we devoted most of our resources to briefing the presenters. Nevertheless a detailed internal report was circulated to them, to the council, and to BSG colleagues.

Overall, the researchers were keen to take part, often travelling some distance to do so, and, in one case, making an overnight stay in London. There is a strong impression that opportunities to do something like this are few and far between. Overall, they had focused more on the content of their work than on how they carried it out – an emphasis justifiably encouraged by participants' curiosity about their findings.There was considerable variation in the tone and style of the Debates and fluctuations within each session. For the most part, the presenters and participants said they were pleased with what they encountered in each other.

In general, though, the presenters came across as the more enthusiastic. They ('definitely', 'very definitely', 'very much so') strongly approved the initiative. One welcomed the 'challenge to translate research findings towards a public discourse'. Another thought 'this system worked well' as a means for researchers to communicate their research and receive feedback. A third thought it gave older people 'an equal part' in debate with professionals and was concerned that a record be kept so that 'the insights generated in the sessions [not] be lost'. A fourth, however, thought it should be clearer 'whether the sessions are truly debates', perhaps with participants primed in advance to speak. Debbie Price wrote:

          'the session was very interesting for me, particularly in illustrating the extent to which non-academics from all social strata can engage on an equal footing in an intellectual debate that academics are struggling with, and in illustrating to me the divergence in the meaning attributed to money wealth and assets between policy makers and older people. I... was pleased at the level of engagement from those attending and I came away with much food for thought. The workshop has influenced the ways that I now think about... these issues'.

A minority of participants did show an interest in method, and most appear to have been engaged by the findings – although a pattern should be noted whereby some people attended what they found of interest or relevance rather than committing to the whole series. Some wanted the Debates themselves written up, which we failed to do. Some wanted the talk turned to action while a smaller number valued the opportunity for reflection. One participant challenged the fundamental premise of the Debates and said the focus should have been on participants setting the future research agenda. The table below presents responses made by participants to the first five sessions.

Kilburn Debates: from eight participants' written comments on the sessions

Session title

Selected participant comments

How it is that older people are and become homeless: why it shouldn't happen and why it does happen

'This was a real eye-opener to the desperate plight of these unfortunate victims.'

'Too little input from those attending.'

Measuring poverty – what makes an older person poor?

'Interesting and provoked a good discussion on different aspects of poverty some of which I hadn't considered.'

'Very illuminating, but I'm not sure how much it will influence Govt. policy – except to make politicians ever more hard-hearted.'

Responding to ageing in Africa – factors relating to HIV/AIDS,
care-giving and social protection in the Republic of South Africa

'It was really interesting to get an insight into these people's lives and the amazing work going on there.'

'Fascinating account showing outcomes and unintended consequences of interventions.'

Using spaces in public places: what are the issues when getting out and about? Do the generations mix?

'Interesting research, in particular the finding that the research was best conducted by teams of old/young. Implications for intergenerational (or rather, multi-generational) work.'

'An interesting project and good collaboration intergenerationally, but not much information about the outcome.'

'This was extremely interesting and could have been explored in more depth.'

Providing information or developing effective communication? How professionals and stroke survivors interact

'I found this very interesting as it dealt with something that I hadn't thought about before. The handouts were useful to read afterwards.'

'Very informative – a little disturbing.'

'Largely anecdotal evidence. Interesting but may have limited final outcomes.'

The presenters' reactions to the participants' social diversity were broadly positive: 'a good mix' said one, while her colleague linked the group's representativeness to the need for 'widespread recognition and awareness of the signs of abuse'. A third thought it was important that different 'environments' had been represented. A fourth found the diversity to be 'the main strength of the session'. Two contributors noted that contributions had been made by people with dementia or aphasia in their sessions. There may also have been some changes in attitude and responsiveness within the group across time - Tony Warnes (who opened the Debates) detected 'some reservation about engaging or “debating” across social differences'. Andy Alaszewski, whose session came eight months later and provoked rather more conflict of opinion, thought the mix 'ensured a lively debate from different perspectives'. There were significant tensions, too, in the discussions of race and apartheid with Jaco Hoffman, and about the safety, or otherwise, of public space with Sheila Peace. Very different understandings of the cost of living emerged between leaseholders and tenants during the participatory exercises delivered by Debbie Price. Criticism of the facilitators was forthright on a couple of occasions.

Kingsgate Resource Centre staff were enthusiastic. The manager, Lesley Rowe, characterised herself as someone 'on the outside looking in', but her verdict was extremely positive. 'I'm looking forward to another lot. That was really active engagement of older people as I see it. Discussing topics they wouldn't normally come across and holding their own with the professionals. It took involvement to quite a new level. Not the rubbishy tick-box stuff.' She had been impressed at the numbers of centre-users who dropped in on the sessions, which she thought often provided a talking point over lunch between those who had attended, and those who hadn't.

Encouragement that the Debates be repeated was not universal, but it did come from all sides, and was sometimes firmly articulated. Barry Peskin, the chair of KOVE, wrote in response to the report to partners:

          "the Report... appears to reflect my own feelings of the project which I personally found informative, stimulating and really worthwhile, while at the same time, being unclear or better unsure of its wider value... what is certainly needed is a programme of audience expansion and this is none to easy to achieve.  I don't think that I mean that the audiences at any one meeting need to be much larger, a few more certainly, but the intimate inclusiveness of the KOVE meetings was successful and helped to overcome the natural feeling of 'research, universities, academics and professors etc. are not for me'.  There need to be more meetings, I think, not necessarily bigger ones.  Outreach is key.  Resources of course will also be a governing factor on how this is done if it is done at all."

Future prospects

Mel Wright and I are preparing a short guide for the BSG on how we went about it. We think project evaluation should have been the task of a third facilitator. A more substantive type of analysis could try to examine:

  • the extent to which public engagement of this kind has influenced researchers in their work
  • how far contact with researchers has influenced participants understanding or outlook
  • the use participants go on to make of the experience and the way that is supported.

Questions needing further consideration included: the ambiguity in the term 'debates' itself; the need to have participants better prepared; a preference for being more involved in constructing the overall agenda and the design of each Debate; the over-reliance on presenters' goodwill; the lack of focused outcomes; the confinement of the events to one locality. An expanded remit could both respond to these points, and encourage a more adventurous approach to topicality. The commitment that presenters' contributions be firmly located within their current or recent research should, however, remain at the heart of the Debates and their ambition to reconcile 'closing the gap between science and society' with the pursuit of social justice.


FUTURAGE EC  Framework (A Roadmap for Ageing Research: FP7-ERA-NET-2008-RTD)

Goldacre, Ben (2008) Bad Science Fourth Estate

House of Lords (2000) Science and Society, Chapter three. UK


Ledwith, M (2007) reclaiming the radical agenda: a critical approach to community development 

Miles J (2006) Evaluation of the Home Care Service Partnership (HCSP) 2006 – 2007 KOVE, UK

Miles J 'The ‘Kilburn Debates - Resourcing debate' Generations Review 19, 1, January 2009  

Miles, J Lessons from 'The Kilburn Debates' 2008-2009 (2010)unpublished report to the British Society of Gerontology

Nisbet, M (2005) 'The Multiple Meanings of Public Understanding' Science and the Media csicop.org

Phillipson, C. And Ogg, J (2010) Active ageing and universities: engaging older learners  Universities UK

Royal Society (1985) The Public Understanding of Science, UK

Sen, A (1999) Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, UK

Wynne, B (1996) 'Misunderstood misunderstandings: social identities and public uptake of science' in Misunderstanding science? The public reconstruction of science and technology inIrwin, A and Wynne, B eds.Cambridge University Press, UK

End of policy and practice section.

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