March 4, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science communication: What was it, what is it, and what should it be?

Science communication still puzzles people it seems, and that includes me. To get to the bottom of that puzzlement I looked at a blog post entitled “What’s this science communication and public engagement stuff all about?” This post provides a really useful overview of science communication and public engagement and people who want or have to do ‘it’ should read it. What was most important for me was one sentence in a document cited in the blog, namely Participation Cymru’s National Principles for Public Engagement. The first principle is, I quote: “Engagement is effectively designed to make a difference. Engagement gives a real chance to influence policy, service design and delivery from an early stage.” I think that’s the crux of the puzzlement.

Performing science communication

For a very long time, from at least the late 18th century onwards, if not before, what one can broadly call ‘science communication’ was not there to ‘make a difference’ or to ‘have a chance to influence policy’ or, to use another fashionable phrase, induce ‘behaviour change’ (unless you include in that a change from not knowing [about] something to knowing [about] something). Did Michael Faraday demonstrate the workings of a candle to make people buy more candles?

Science communication was there for education and entertainment. Its main purpose was to make science accessible to ordinary people, to impart knowledge and to stimulate, if possible, enthusiasm and wonder. It was there to open doors to knowledge that were still closed to many; sometimes just to show people what’s there, sometimes to enable them to acquire enough information and understanding to open up science to public scrutiny. In a sense that’s what Mary Shelley did when writing Frankenstein 200 years ago, inspired, in part by popular science communicator, Humphry Davy and his Royal Institution lectures on galvanism and chemistry. In the 20th century, stimulating critical thinking about science and society was added to that ensemble. (And of course, I am simplifying a lot here) (added: after posting: and, as people on twitter have been rightly pointing out, this was a rather rose-tinted characterisation of 19th-century scicomm)

I’d add that it’s not only important to impart, through science communication, the knowledge and (ever-changing) facts that emerge from the activities of scientists; it’s also important for scientists to convey the values of science, and, informed by those, but stepping back from science communication as such, “to be active and engaged participants in civil society“.

Science communication within a performance culture

This is the type of science communication that many still have in mind (rightly or wrongly) when they hear the word ‘science communication’ (I think). However, over the last fifty or so years the phrase has become embedded in very different contexts and accumulated meanings that may be quite alien to good science communicators.

Rather than providing time and space and freedom to engage in science communication, there have been instead wave after wave of ‘directives’ from scholarly societies and research councils that make science communication more or less mandatory, but not just ‘science communication’; what is valued is science communication as part of ‘public engagement’. That’s not bad. But unfortunately, this now has been embedded in an overall agenda aimed at inducing policy and behaviour change, influencing influencers, and, of course, scoring winning goals in the impact agenda.

Scientists have gradually lost control over science communication in the process. It’s no longer what some of them love to do, but what everybody wants them to do. It’s also no longer just about making science and scientific knowledge accessible, it’s about making people ‘accept it’ so that they ‘do’ things in society that are beneficial to ‘society’ (as seen at various points in time by those who ‘police’ society, i.e. the policy and decision makers). It’s no longer related to reaching out (outreach) to the public; it’s about increasing the ‘global reach’ of academic (entrepreneurial) institutions. It’s not valued for itself but mainly because it can generate ‘public value’ for these institutions. This, of course, sucks the joy out of ‘science communication’, which is no longer spectacle, entertainment and performance but part of academic performance reviews….

In this process of taking control away from scientists, a whole academic industry has begun to flourish that is supposed to tell scientists what to communicate, how to communicate and for what reasons to communicate. Research into these matters has proliferated (and I have contributed to this proliferation). Unfortunately, the results of that research are largely published in places and in languages that scientists don’t visit and don’t really understand. As a result, there is some estrangement between those who still communicate and those who want to tell them how to do it.

Furthermore, not only has control been largely taken away from scientists with regard to science communication; instead they have been handed the responsibility of controlling people’s behaviour with regard to very complex issues of a largely political nature, something most scientists had not signed up for. Failures in policies can then be attributed to failures in ‘science communication’.

All this means that ‘science communication’ as a phrase has lost its core meaning and has become embroiled in a plethora of political issues which make it difficult for science communicators to do the right thing, whatever that may be.

Taking back control over science communication

So how can one take back control over science communication and make it a joyful and useful activity. It would of course be nice to no longer having to think about REF and impact, but that’s a big ask. For the moment, it might just be useful to no longer tell scientists that they are bad at communicating science (see Tim Radford’s article) and to get away from fetishising the deficit model, something that those advising science communicators how to communicate often do.

So I’ll end by quoting a long passage from a text that I admire a lot and which makes the case ‘for’ the deficit model. It was written by David Dickson, founding director of SciDev.Net, who unfortunately died suddenly in 2013:

“What is true of news reporting in general also applies to the public communication of science and technology. One of the challenges facing all of those engaged in such activity is not only to make science communication an important channel for the essential dialogue between science and society, but also to ensure that this dialogue is solidly based on fact.

In other words, both journalists and other types of science communicator face the task of providing individuals with the facts that empower them to engage properly in such dialogue. Their ultimate goal should be to ensure that decisions emerging from such dialogue are taken in a way that is both appropriately democratic and informed.

Substantial and effective dialogue will only take place when those on both sides have a sound understanding of the relevant factual evidence; indeed evidence-based decision-making is an ideal that we should aspire to at every level of society, from local communities to the top levels of government. If the relevant evidence is absent — which often, sadly, turns out to be the case — then it is surely the role of the science communicator to fill the gap. In other words, to make up the relevant ‘knowledge deficit’.”

Image: Flickr

PS added after posting: Some more in-depth reflections on the nature of scicomm by Peter Broks here.

Posted in Science Communication