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January 7, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

What is science communication? Reflecting on one fall-out from the Cox/Ince debate

Just before Christmas 2012 Brian Cox and Robin Ince published an editorial in the New Statesman entitled ‘Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’, which provoked a lively debate on twitter, in blogs and in the Guardian about the relation between science and politics, the function of the history and philosophy of science, the social sciences, science and technology studies, science policy studies and science communication, a phrase that was curiously used by some as subsuming all these fields under the label of ‘scicomm’.

The issue of science communication came into focus because of a rather provocative blog by one expert in science communication (who questioned the value of the Geek movement for science), followed by a blog by another expert in science communication (who questioned, to some extent, the value of ‘science communication’, in a very broad sense, for science).  So, what’s the matter with science communication?

Questions, questions, questions

In the context of this whole debate one sentence in a (tangentially related) blog jumped out at me, namely this one: “if you’d asked Richard Feynman his views of science communication, I’m not sure he would have even known what you meant”. This made me think about the meaning of science, science communicators and science communication. Who is a science communicator? What is science communication? Can you be a science communicator before the phrase science communication was invented? Who first used the phrase science communication? What is science communication (for)? And what is the overlap between the field, discipline, academic research area of science communication and the practice of science communication? I would love to hear form anyone who knows answers to these questions. Here I can only point to the tip of an iceberg or a whole landscape of icebergs.

Science communicators

If you asked people to name a science communicator (and some real research would be nice here, but I haven’t done that), they might, depending on their age and their interests, say, what are you talking about, or they would come up with names like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, James Burke, Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Marcus Du Sautoy, Jim Al-Khalili, Alice Roberts, Martyn Poliakoff, Tom Pringle and many many more. But of course this list is hopelessly flawed and steeped in presentism, Anglocentrism, and, if you want, scientism (what about Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy, Jules Verne, Arabella Buckley, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Ranga Yogeshwar. and even, facetiously, Lucretius, you may well ask!). However, I think one can say that these people engage in communicating science in one way or another. They do so for all sorts of reasons and have arrived at engaging in this activity by sometimes very unpredictable paths, as DeGrasse Tyson has stressed in his advice for young science communicators. One can of course also become a science communicator in a more straightforward way by studying science communication at degree level. But this seems to be a rather more recent phenomenon (historians needed here). And there are many more paths in between leading to being interested in and/or practicing science communication.

Science communication

If you asked people to define science communication (and again some real research would be nice here), they would probably say it has to do with communicating science and point perhaps to some of the aforementioned science communicators. People may not know that science communication exists as an academic discipline. As one twitterer said a few days ago: “Something good came of the recent Cox/Ince/New Statesman Twitterstorm: ‘Didn’t realise Science Communication existed as academic discipline until #coxince …’ – @Steve_P_Knight”.

Finding a definition of science communication is quite hard. There is a useful bibliography of major works in science communication provided by Alice Bell. I also found a 2008 article published in Public Understanding of Science, entirely devoted to finding a definition of science communication, as both a field of research and as a practice.

The authors of the article define science communication as follows “SCIENCE COMMUNICATION (SciCom) may be defined as the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science (the vowel analogy): Awareness, including familiarity with new aspects of science; Enjoyment or other affective responses, e.g. appreciating science as entertainment or art; Interest, as evidenced by voluntary involvement with science or its communication; Opinions, the forming, reforming, or confirming of science-related attitudes; Understanding of science, its content, processes, and social factors; Science communication may involve science practitioners, mediators, and other members of the general public, either peer-to-peer or between groups.” I really liked the inclusion of enjoyment! And of course there are many models and theories of science communication, surrounded by philosophical, political and historical reflections on their value and use in society. A more recent article from 2012 distinguishes between professional, deficit, consultative and deliberative or participatory models of science communication for example.

But what do people think science communication ‘is’? As I don’t have access to real people for this blog post, I went to the oracle that is google. I had googled ‘science is…’ followed by various letters of the alphabet some time ago, just for fun and found that science was ‘awesome’, ‘bad’, ‘fun’, ‘interesting’, ‘magic’, ‘vital’ and much more (try it out!). So I was curious to see what would happen if I did this with ‘science communication is…’. What I found was rather surprising. I don’t want to list all my findings (again, you can just try it out). But some of the key words that came up were: awards, blogs, conferences, courses, degrees, funding, even the dreaded impact factor, jobs (that came up several times in various contexts, especially related to place names like Bristol, Edinburgh and so on), postgraduate, research, salary, thesis, training, workshops, vacancies and so on.

These findings really depressed me as a science and communication enthusiast. So I thought I could perhaps cheer myself up by looking at communication alone and, lo and behold, things were not so bad. ‘Communication is…’ generated things like key, vital, a two way process, an art, a process, complex, dynamic, essential, everywhere, and so on.

So, science is vital and communication is vital. The question is what gets lost when science and communication join up in one verbal compound, namely ‘science communication’ or ‘scicomm’/’scicom’? Why do things seem to become so dreary, while science communication as practiced by actual science communicators can be so exciting, and while many students really enjoy studying science communication? Is it because the (more flamboyant) doing of scicomm and the (more scholarly) reflecting on scicomm are, or have become, in some way and for some reason disconnected?

Scicomm and the science wars

During the short ‘science wars’ that erupted around Christmas 2012, there seemed to be some hostility between some practitioners of science communication and some academic experts in science communication and adjoining academic fields. Can this hostility be partially attributed to an emerging split between scientists doing science communication and those studying it (and often also doing it at the same time)? Did the former (for whom science communication is mainly part of the doing of science) perhaps not want the models and the theories and sometimes the historical and political reflections that academic colleagues from the social sciences wanted to provide, whereas the latter (for whom science communication is mainly part of the thinking about science) could not make this theoretical knowledge seem vital and fun and interesting to their colleagues?

Both sides accused each other of arrogance, for sometimes good reasons, which widened the perceived gap between them, while in fact they are really just two sides of the same coin. If they listened to each other and were willing to learn from each other instead of squabbling, the research and practice of ‘science communication’ across all disciplines may become as vital as science and as vital as communication. And only then would somebody like Richard Feynman or Isaac Asimov recognise ‘science communication’ when they saw it.

If you want to know more about the vicissitudes of science communication and some remedies, please consult this article.

Image taken by Brigitte on a flight to a science communication conference in Padua, Italy, 2010.

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