Taking as its frame the last twenty years of policy-making and academic discussion regarding public engagement with science (PES), this short article offers a personal evaluation of the balance between failure and achievement, and reflects upon some of the other contributions to the special issue. Put in the most general terms, have we been moving forwards or in circles? The persistence of public engagement efforts and existence of constructive science–social science collaborations are noted. However, the ambiguous character of the institutional embrace of social science and the instrumental role accorded to PES research remain as significant issues. Following a retrospective discussion of the ‘deficit’ model of science–public relations, some conclusions are drawn concerning the future needs of both reflective practice and practical reflection.