April 7, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Time and science communication

On 29 March, 2017 the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published the results of its inquiry into science communication. On 31 March Tim Caulfied tweeted about an article that Andy Miah had written about the report for The Conversation. Tim said: “How scientists should communicate their work in a post-truth era … Need support/time!” Miah had argued that “Perhaps the most important obstacle to this [science communication] is time. Most scientists – especially those working in universities – are not given time for science communication. So work like this is often seen as voluntary or added value. Without proper recognition, there will never be a serious, strategic science communication.”

Time-scapes of science communication

That set me thinking. What is the time-scape of science communication? Who are the actors in that time-scape? And what are the commonalities and differences between them with regards to how they deal with time?

At first I thought I’d break up this post into three parts: (1) Scientists – spending time; (2) journalists – chasing time; and (3) people or publics – giving time; that didn’t work out, as I found out when trying to think about this.

Scientists are always under time pressure, I thought, and finding time to also engage with people outside research groups, universities, conferences, and beyond students, is a tough task, especially as there really is no reward system for such activities – that is they are not ‘given’ time that they could easily spend on science communication. Engaging in science communication also takes time away from writing grants, teaching, admin and so on. (I won’t talk here about the ‘impact’ agenda which has a rather fraught relationship with science communication and time, that needs separate thinking).

Journalists and science writers (the few that are still there to cover science) are also always under time pressure but in a slightly different way. They have almost daily hard deadlines; they have to chase stories; they have to file them on time and in ever shorter spaces of time. The also have to compete for limited space and air time.

People (‘publics’ – and these may include scientists and journalists) are supposed to ‘engage’ with science in a variety of ways, from citizen science to citizen juries, to public dialogues, deliberative workshops and consultations. They have to find the time (and most of all the inclination) to do such things. They have to set aside time for such activities, over and above holding down jobs, caring for a family and friends, having fun, relaxing, engaging in all sorts of hobbies and past-times (if the have the time) and much more.

As one can see, my initial grouping according to spending, chasing and giving time did not work. These verbs can be used in a variety of combination to describe issues around time and science communication faced by everybody who is an actor in that timescape. It’s clear, however, that one thing unites everybody. All groups, basically, have to FIND time to engage in science communication, in various ways and under a variety of pressures and constraints.

However, there are moves to reward scientists more for science communication (so they get something back for the time they ‘spend’); whether that really helps with the time issue though or makes it worse, I don’t know. Scientists, science journalists and science writers are passionate about what they do and will always try and find the time to do science communication, whatever the cost. But what about the public(s)?

There will be some who also feel passionate about science (or who are drawn to science in general or a specific science/tech issue through fate or love) and don’t think it’s a waste of their time to engage with it in their ‘spare’ time. There are others who might just engaging with science as a waste of time (just as I see engagement with football as a waste of time, for reasons that are lost in time). Can we really persuade people who are time poor to use their time for something they see as pointless, without some sort of extrinsic or intrinsic reward?

Of course, many get rewards for spending time with science communicators by being enlightened, entertained, amazed and so on. And that is quite enough. Others who participate in, say, public dialogues, are paid for their time. However, they almost never see how the time they spent has made a difference in policy, science or infrastructure. It’s vital to change that. The government needs to take a bit of time to think about its own responsibilities in this and all of the above!

Time haves and have-nots

So far I have only talked about three groups of people or actors, when thinking about science communication and time. There are of course many more.

There are professional science communicators whose job it is to communicate science or who have been allocated time to do science communication on an almost professional basis by their institutions.

There are students who, during their studies, =allocate some of their time to building up practical science communication skills and have to balance ‘doing science’ with ‘doing outreach’ and ‘engagement’. I was deeply impressed for example by the dedication of the students involved in Pint of Science and Creative Reactions. What they do takes commitment and, most of all, time-management.

Finally, there are those who spend a lot of time writing about science communication without really practising it. And here are those that, being retired, finally have time to do and write about science communication in ways they were perhaps unable to do before. They have the privilege of ‘free’ time; they have time to spend as they like. This can also include engaging in amateur science, citizen science, taking the grand-kids to science centres and science fairs and so on – in order to give the parents some time to themselves.

Thinking about this, I wondered whether there something like time envy between the academic, professional,  semi-professional, amateur and what one might call inter-generational science communicators? How do they think about each other and the time they (can) devote to science communication? How do their activities complement each other and the work of actual science teachers in schools?

Question time

These are all questions that came to mind after reading that one tweet by Timothy Caulfield. I don’t have any answers to them; but I believe more thought should be given to the issue of time in science communication: how can it be found, how is it valued, what’s the division of labour-time, what makes some people take the time, and why do others not waste their time on science communication?

Thoughts welcome!

Image: Pixabay


Posted in Science Communication