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thoughts from a conference: scientists and science communication

I spent much of today at an international symposium on "Transforming Public Engagement on Controversial Science & Technology". It's been fascinating & I'm looking forward to day 2, having learned a lot from both the formal presentations and the round-table discussions. I also got to lead a discussion session after a keynote address by fellow sciblogger Shaun Hendy (hi Shaun!), who looked at the reasons scientists do - & don't - get into science communication. Set the questions "should scientists be active in science communication, should they be 'brokers' of science knowledge or take on more of a 'science advocacy' role, and how best should we (society) support them in doing so, the participants came up with quite an extensive list. I've riffed on them a bit here in the hope that this may engender even more discussion.

  • Which scientists? Are we talking natural/physical scientists, or should the net be broadened to include social scientists, political scientists, & so on? Should we distinguish between them - there's a case to me made for closer cooperation between the various disciplines (something of a 'hybrid' model). Also, do we really want open slather - there's a risk of dilution of effort if everyone should happen to get involved. It could be better to have clear 'go-to' people for the media, in particular. (Here, of course, we need to remember that there are many ways to get involved in science communication. Fronting to the media is important, yes, but there are other avenues: presenting at Cafe Scientifique or science-in-the-pub events, helping schools during primary science week, & speaking to general interest groups spring to mind, but I'm sure there are many more.)
  • Science vs knowledge: science is only one lens for viewing the world; we also need discussions around ethical implications of novel technologies, for example. (Our table had an involved discussion, in a later session, around different cultural perspectives on assisted reproductive technologies, which had nothing at all to do with the mechanics of the actual technologies, and everything to do with the social and cultural impacts of both the application of those technologies and the very words we use to talk about them.) We can't talk about science without also considering the social context in which it's set, and the question of what society does with the science is up to society as a whole (or its elected representatives).
  • Communication may involve education around a particular aspect of science; advocacy (for the process, the nature, of science or for a particular application - although here you'd surely be moving into the realm of opinion?), or about policy issues. All must be evidence-based. Scientists are also citizens, and it's not possible for us to be entirely objective about our work. We need to be clear about whether we're communicating around our particular field of expertise, as compared to advocating for a particular action. And there does need to be discussion about and engagement with the nature of science, as well as the results of that science (advocacy for the scientific method, if you will).
  • Science communication is a two-way street: we need to listen and learn, as well as speak out.
  • We need to consider other forms of communication besides the spoken & written word - here Siouxsie Wiles and her glow-in-the-dark squid sprang immediately to mind :) More interactivity, more 'non-traditional' modes of communication!
  • Scientists are used to taking time to consider their responses to queries, while the media require quick (if not immediate) answers to requests for information. Shaun touched on this, too, as one of the reasons that some scientists may be reluctant to get involved in dealing with the members of the fourth estate.
  • Issues around conflicts of interest, memoranda of understanding, and confidentiality may affect individuals' availability, willingness, and freedom to speak. The nature of the particular discipline, sources of funding, and potential impacts on job security may also influence decisions.
  • Why would scientists communicate? Should they? In a different, more scientifically-literate world, maybe we wouldn't have to. Or there might not be so much need, anyway. However, these days, with very few specialist science journalists in the media, the need remains. As to the 'why would we' part, as Shaun noted, there are many potential reasons. Some - I think very few - do it simply as a means to raise their own profile or attract more funding. We may do it through sheer frustration with the way the media or society deal with scientific issues. But probably most scientists involved in science communication do it in the hope of making a difference; we're usually motivated by a sense of social responsibility or by an interest in a particular issue. (I originally got into science blogging, for example, as a means of supporting secondary biology teachers and students.)
  • Scientists don't always have to work though the media but may work in the community at the request of that community on local initiatives.
  • How do we enable scientists to communicate about what they do? Basically this activity needs to be incentivised, by funding and/or official recognition. (Writing science blogs, no matter how solid the science in them or how widely they're read and discussed, doesn't count in the PBRF stakes.) We also need to respect the work of those who don't communicate; it's not something that everyone can or should get into.
  • It's a real challenge to communicate the uncertainty of science. This is something I've noticed in the fluoride debates, for example. People want a degree of certainty in their lives, while science is never 100% certain - though we may speak of an issue being 'effectively settled', there remains that hint of uncertainty. This can be unsettling, and it can work against science in some forums.
  • It's also a challenge, at times, to avoid issues with equivalence or 'false balance'. The media in particular are keen on presenting 'both sides' when from a scientific perspective there's only one. (Hence we'll sometimes see stories on vaccination paired with claims that this is linked to autism, or on evolution 'balanced' by the views of intelligent design proponentsists, for example. And no, that was not a spelling mistake on my part.)

Please feel free to add to or comment on any of these points!

 

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2 Comments

"Science Guy" Bill Nye just debated Congresswoman Marcia Blackburn on TV here in the U.S.

We absolutely need to have this happen, because our fossil fuel industries are flush with cash and they are using it to misinform the public, buy politicians, and otherwise make sure nothing changes. Except the climate, disastrously.

Here's a review.
~

Someone said much the same thing yesterday, regarding the energy industry in (I think) Canada.
And many kudos to Bill Nye!

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