Outline and critically assess the 'deficit model' of the public understanding of science

At its heart, the deficit model of science understanding concerns itself with how science and scientific ideas are communicated (Anderson, 2002). However, as we shall see, this is only part of the story, as this process of communication has a wealth of varying outcomes and ramifications that place notions such as the deficit model within a broad network of sociological and psychosocial as well as scientific concerns.

The deficit model has been termed, or has been closely allied with, the “cognitive deficit model” (Layton et al, 1993, cited in Dunwoody, Friedman and Rogers, 1999: 50), the “scientific literacy model “ (Dunwoody, Friedman and Rogers, 1999: 50) or even the “public ignorance model” (Irwin, 1995: 92) and has formed the theoretical basis for the understanding of the public’s perception and interaction with science over the last thirty of years. In a report by the House of Lords, Science and Technology - Third Report (HMSO, 2000), Sir Robert May called the approach “a rather backward looking vision” (HMSDO: 2000: sc. 3.9) and the British Council “went so far as to call it ‘outmoded and potentially dangerous’” (HMSO, 2000: sc. 3.9).

The deficit model of scientific understanding assumes that the public’s knowledge of scientific discourse and research is non-existent. The public, as Jane Gregory and Steve Miller point out are “empty vessels” (Gregory and Miller, 2000: 17) or “blank slates” that need to be informed by a knowledgeable, hierarchical scientific community. It is the public’s deficit of knowledge that the scientist aims to fill with simple, generic instructions, commands and insights.

Of course, this notion has a huge variety of differing outcomes in social situations ranging from the public’s understanding of the link between lung cancer and smoking (Dunwoody, Friedman and Rogers, 1999: 50), to the effects of nuclear attack in the 1950s and 60s to the current interest in mobile phone technology and health matters. The deficit model sees the public as being very much the receiver of scientific knowledge concerning only areas that might be of use to them; in this way it is inextricably linked to concepts such as the welfare state and post-war ideological notions of the state’s relationship to society.

As Anderson (2002) states, the deficit model also suggests mistrust of and lack of interest in science and scientific research by the public. Spurred on, perhaps, by the recent exponential advances in scientific discovery, the public is sometimes seen as being alienated by the scientific community’s own successes. In order for there to be a reasonable working knowledge of science based tools, in computing for instance, or concerns, as in health, there must first be a basis for understanding, a basis that can only come about when interest is aroused.

The deficit model is, as Dunwoody, Friedman and Rogers (1999) assert, built on the importance of scientific understanding in a socio-political context:

“Rationales for raising public awareness and understanding of science in this cognitive sense have ranged from the importance of such literacy to a civic and democratic culture to its importance for personal efficacy to its value as preparation for the world of work.“ (Dunwoody, Friedman and Rogers, 1999: 50) 

This notion recognizes the importance of imparting knowledge to remove the deficit of understanding from all manner of different social discourses; a farmer or environmental worker, for instance will need a different set of intellectual tools as a patient suffering from lung cancer or a person at risk from AIDS and, of course, these groups will overlap and cross-fertilize.

Simon Besser Locke in his Constructing “The Beginning”: Discourses of Creation Science (1999) points out that the deficit model of scientific understanding focuses, to a very large extent, on what the public does not know rather than what it does know:

“In contrast, research that is interested in public understanding of science has a much less restricted scope, concerned to establish what members of the public make of science. This goes beyond the simple testing of knowledge (although knowledge claims may be part of the research interest), to consider the meaning that science has for people and the use made of it within specific social contexts” (Besser Locke, 1999: 11)    

It is this notion that forms the foundation of the recent loss of faith in the deficit model as a reasonable method of understanding the dynamic between the public and the scientific community. Another is the extent that the scientific community can reach reasonable consensuses with which to base public understanding on (Dunwoody, Friedman and Rogers, 1999: 51). In order to communicate on a politically expedient level, the discourse must first, of course, be firmly in place. The recent medico-political difficulties with the MMR vaccine, for instance, is an ideal example, where ambiguity and disparity within the scientific community caused public uncertainty that, far from creating understanding and trust, created a negative affect.

The deficit model also assumes that the public has no or very little knowledge to begin with. With the rise of new information based systems such as the internet and greater access to scientific research through the media, the public’s understanding of scientific discourses can be seen to be growing. This means that, more and more, members of the public can assess the truth and validity of what they are told by the Government and its scientists. This makes the relationship between the ordinary member of the public and the scientific community one of a dialectic rather than a hierarchically based system of pedagogy.  

The deficit model has a great deal, I think, to tell us about the ways in which Governments are changing in order to more closely reflect the society that they form a part of. As the House of Lords report suggests (2000), the relationship between the Government, its scientists and the public is changing and the models of communication need to change in order to reflect that. The actual process of information communication and dissemination may be more complex than the deficit model suggests.


  • Besser Locke, Simon (1999), Constructing “The Beginning”: Discourses of Creation Science, (London: Lawrence Erlbaum)
  • Dunwoody, Sharon, Friedman, Sharon and Rogers, Carol (1999), Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science, (London:
  • Lawrence Erlbaum)
  • Gregory, Jane and Miller, Steve (2000), Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, (London: Perseus)
  • House of Lords Science and Technology - Third Report (HMSO: 2000)
  • Irwin, Alan (1995), Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development, (London: Routledge)
  • Scanlon, Eileen, Hill, Roger and Junker, Kirk (eds) (1999), Communicating Science - Professional Context, (London: Routledge)
  • Scanlon, Eileen, Whitelegg, Elizabeth and Yates, Simeon (eds) (1999), Communicating Science - Context and Channels, (London: Routledge)

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