February 12, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science, politics and science communication

I sometimes get asked why I write blog posts about science communication and even sometimes practice science communication, given that science communication is not really the focus of our ‘Making Science Public’ programme of research (which was drafted in response to a Leverhulme Trust call for proposals on ‘science and politics’). Despite its title, the ‘Making Science Public’ research programme is supposed to deal mainly with various conundrums of transparency and openness that emerge when science and politics collide. So, why my fascination with science communication? How might it fit into our research programme despite the fact that it was originally not mentioned in our proposal? How can I justify it to myself?

Why science communication?A_Reading_in_the_Salon_of_Mme_Geoffrin,_1755_Small

The ‘Making science public’ programme deals with various issues that emerge from making science more open (or not) both in the public sphere and the policy/political sphere. And this is where, I think, science communication comes in. There have to be channels of communication, ways of communicating, and, of course, real communicators to make science work with and in politics and with and in society. Without communication science would remain enclosed in its supposed ivory tower. Of course, science has never really been enclosed in such a mythical tower. It has always been a societal and political enterprise from its very beginnings, and thus also an enterprise in communication. As Bucchi and Tench (2009:1) point out, “communicating ideas or insights drawn from scientific research to a wider public was part of the enlightenment enterprise of the eighteenth century”, a century that ended in political, industrial and communication revolutions that reverberated all through the 19th and 20th centuries. Science communication itself was part of these political and societal revolutions. It has a long (science/political) history.

Popular and political science communication

There is a problem however in talking about ‘science communication’ in the context of a research programme dealing with science in politics and science in society. Science communication has a perception problem (in some circles). It is stereotypically associated with transmitting knowledge and/or excitement from scientists to ‘the public’. ‘Science communication’ means mainly ‘popular science communication’. Science communication is rarely associated with what one may call ‘political science communication’.

Engaging in science communication in the public sphere (popular science communication) can be fun; engaging in science communication in the political sphere (political science communication) can be rewarding (especially if it leads, in the UK, to getting ‘impact’ brownie points), but it can also be soul-destroying. To do popular science communication you need enthusiasm; to do political science communication you need a very thick skin. This may be why scientists still prefer one over the other.

The line between popular and political science communication is of course porous. There is in fact no line, but rather a spectrum of communication activities that stretch from outreach to deliberative workshops and beyond and from political science communication with a small p to Political science communication with a big P, which covers mainly the work of science advisers, arbiters and advocates.

The problem is that Political science communication brings science communication and science communicators into contact with the morass and pollution of political life and political opinion. Direct involvement in politics poses real dangers in terms of losing credibility, trust and legitimacy in the public sphere, dangers that many scientists might still rather want to avoid.

Bold science communication

This might be nicely illustrated by the way climate scientists, who give their time in order to try and inform policy makers through, say, contributing to IPCC reports, are seen by some parts of society. Communicating to and with politicians can lead to accusations of just being in it for the money, of being in it for the fame, of politicising science and so on. Working in such an atmosphere is probably quite exhausting. One needs a dose of ‘boldness’ and a quite a bit of courage to enter this atmosphere.

It is therefore not astonishing that one climate scientist who tries to communicate with both members of the public (and a wide spectrum of those!) and Members of Parliament, Tamsin Edwards, has been awarded a Suffrage Science Award, which she’ll receive this year on Women’s Day from Kathy Sykes, Professor of Sciences and Society at the University of Bristol and a passionate science communicator herself.

Popular science communication

I will now return to popular science communication and argue that this too is important in the context of our programme. Decision-making about science and technology issues in a democracy needs to be based not only on having well-informed politicians but also on having a well-informed electorate. This is where popular science communication comes in. Not all popular science communication has a direct bearing on policy decisions of course and the closer you come to topics that have a direct bearing on policy decisions or the closer you come to controversial and polarised topics, the more difficult and political science communication (with a small p) becomes.

Science communication is not all about dinosaurs, it’s also about DNA; it’s not only about planets but also about pollution. All of these science communication efforts are important and support democratic decision making about science in the long run. Enthusiasm and fascination with dinosaurs may lead to a fascination with DNA and in due course perhaps to critical reflections about personalised medicine and big pharma or whatever topic you can imagine. Dinosaurs and other popular science communication props can be seen as gateway drugs to critical engagement with science in society and in politics – at least for those who get hooked.

And, of course, dinosaurs are not just innocent props for popular science engagement. They can easily become footballs in political science communication, as was confirmed to me yet again, just after I had written the last word of this paragraph and saw a twitter exchange about dinosaurs and religion.

The politics of science communication

Finally, there is one aspect of science communication which links it more directly to the theme of ‘science and politics’ and that is what one may call ‘the politics of science communication’. Science communicators go out and communicate on the whole because they are passionate about a topic. However, others might also want to use them and their skills for activities that look more like PR, marketing and even propaganda. This is what one might call the political use of science communication. Here science communication might be used to convince a certain public of the validity of one point of view on a topic over another, rather than exploring a variety of points of view. It might be used to channel a discussion in certain ways, rather than let it flow more freely and openly, or even to silence certain inconvenient voices. More innocently perhaps, it might be used to tick certain public engagement boxes rather than to stimulate genuine dialogue and partnership. This is certainly something that many of my colleagues want to keep an eye on and to explore in more depth.

Added 16 February: more reflections on types of science communication: http://tumblr.benlillie.com/post/111131925807/what-gets-called-science-communication

Added 22 February: Alice Bell reflects on dinosaur-denial: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/22/alice-roberts-piltdown-man-lying-stone-dinosaur-deniers

And while I am at it, this older one too is great: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jul/19/willetts-children-science-space-dinaosaurs

Image: A reading in the Salon of Madame Goeffrin





Posted in science and politicsScience Communication