December 28, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science communication: Does social science help or hinder?

On 20th December Alice Bell tweeted a science communication story that made me laugh out loud! And then it made me think.

Here is the story

“Drunk suit fell over getting on the tube, exclaimed ‘Gravity! That’s physics! That’s the cleverest thing!’ and then started asking people in the carriage if they love physics and whether or not it’s better than biology.”

She went on to say:

“Sci commers: You can facilitate all the fancy pants coproductions of upstreams you want, but drunk middle aged men arguing with strangers about whether it was gravity, vodka or the Northern Line that made them fall over is public engagement with science and technology.”

“Facilitate all the fancy pants co-productions of upstreams”! That sums up some of the fashionable words and concepts that science communicators are supposed to think about before they communicate. Other concepts to add to these are ‘the deficit model’, ‘responsible research and innovation’ or RRI, ‘anticipatory governance’, and also, wait for it, ‘mid-stream engagement’.

These concepts all originated in the social sciences, as far as I can tell (where ‘science communication’ has become a flourishing academic sub-field). They did not, I believe, emerge from the practice of science communication or from reflections by practicing science communicators on their practice.

Fancy pants co-productions of upstreams

I have tried to fathom some of these concepts in previous blog posts, such as co-production, anticipatory governance, responsible innovation, as well as the deficit model. I haven’t reflected on the self-defeating term ‘outreach’. And I have certainly swerved round up- and midstream engagement. To put it simply: it just means trying to engage with people before a technology takes off in society. This was very popular during nano-times, but nanotechnology never really became a ‘thing’ in society at large; the same goes for geoengineering. So, we can’t learn much from these episodes for current issues like AI, driverless cars and, say, drones, where public engagement is difficult. Looking at what’s going on there, it’s more like engaging against the (marketing) stream.

One concept that escapes Alice’s scorn and mine is ‘public engagement’ which, despite being another ‘buzzword’, rightly stresses the importance of dialogue, interaction, mutual listening/learning and respect between scientists and those they talk with.

Social scientists who put public engagement in the spotlight have helped improve science communication, I assume (but I’d love to see some empirical studies). Does that also apply to these other concepts? It probably depends on what science communication is for.

What is science communication for?

In another blog post I expressed my exasperation about a utilitarian approach to science communication, which sees it as a means to an end: making people accept science or any type of emerging technology, assuaging fears about science and more. Social science has helped science communicators see that such uses of science communication are traps and dangers.

However, by helping to institutionalise science communication and public engagement as part of a marketised impact-oriented university (with good intentions, making science accountable to society), social science might also have fostered another utilitarian approach and constrained science communication in ways that might strangle it.

Fancy pants concepts helped social scientists put public engagement on the policy agenda and to sell their approaches to science funding agencies. In the process, highly-developed theories of science communication were increasingly cut off from science communication practice.

I’d argue that one should treat science communication as much as possible as an end in itself and not as a means to an end. Of course, science communication cannot be devoid of any purpose. If one wanted to postulate two purposes, they might be to educate and to entertain.

More broadly speaking, science communication should be there to broaden the mind, to share knowledge, to make people think (together, if possible), to get into conversations, to have fun together. Anything else is a bonus, but the bonus should not be the driver.

Science communication, like going to the theatre, going to museums or exhibitions, dancing, team sports, making and listening to music, and, most importantly, playing, should be seen as a normal part of human culture, of self-cultivation or Bildung.

By providing the space to play with new concepts and things, science communication can foster learning and understanding, including mutual understanding; playing encourages communication and conversation; playing creates opportunities to establish social bonds; most importantly it stimulates the imagination.

In 1938 Johan Huizinga, a cultural theorist, wrote the seminal book Homo Ludens in which he argued that play is primary to and a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of the generation of culture. ‘Science communication’ in all its diversity and variety is part of that; it’s neither an add-on to science nor something happening outside normal cultural life. It should also not be a tool to generate ‘impact’.

How to do science communication?

Do whatever you feel comfortable with!

If you think people need important information, give them that information; if you have spotted misinformation, correct it; if you like to talk and chat, give a talk and engage in chat; if you like to tell stories, tell a story, even write a book; if you like art or music combine science with art or music; if you like theatre, comedy or improv, combine science with these activities; if you like to experiments, do experiments together; if you like games or gaming, create a game; if you have a big name and television producers like you, make the most of it; if you need input from lay people, get that input and respect it… and so on.

Do science communication in whatever format and on whatever medium you like; face to face, on YouTube, on twitter, in blogs, in threads (ah threads). Do it whenever and wherever you like: in the Royal Institution, in a lecture theatre, in schools, in a pub, in a taxi, and of course on the tube!

Read some good books on science communication or explore the resources available at the NCCPE, if you like, but don’t let a conceptual straight-jacket prevent you from enjoying yourselves with others.

On no account try to measure the impact of your activities. That’s the death-knell of all academic life and even more so of all science communication.

When interacting with policy-makers, give them facts and uncertainties, but not recipes for making the world a better place. People and policy makers have to work that out for themselves, once they have sufficient knowledge about what’s going on and can weigh up their options.


We need to step away, if at all possible, from the institutionalisation of science communication constrained and patrolled by obscure concepts, such as ‘fancy pants co-production of upstreams’. Instead, we need to encourage and support science communication in all its diversity and vibrancy as part of our collective and changing culture. For science communication to thrive as part of a common global culture, we need to give those who want to engage in it the freedom to experiment and the space to do so unhindered by institutional demands.

What about the question in my title: does social science help or hinder? It helped people think about science communication differently. However, by turning scholarly thinking about science communication (and related activities) into a self-referential academic enterprise on the one hand and selling new conceptual tools to those who patrol the academy on the other, social science might also hinder its flourishing.

Science communication should be encouraged and valued (but not enforced and measured) as part of the university’s mission, namely the creation and sharing of knowledge.


I am just watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, a Christmas ritual I have been following with my family since 1985. This year’s lectures are entitled Who am I? and are delivered by Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysagh. They have done Michael Faraday proud!! Science communication at its best!

Posted in Science Communication