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What Do Scientists Think About Science Communication? Is This Any Different to Times That Pre-Date the Bodmer Report?

By ThomasStrand1 May 07, 2013 2329 Words
What do scientists think about science communication? Is this any different to times that pre-date the Bodmer report?

In 1985 The Royal Society backed a report called The Public Understanding of Science[1], also known as The Bodmer Report. It introduced the importance of the public view of science and how they come to understand scientific knowledge. It opened a large debate over the role of science communication. Science communication is the process of disseminating scientific knowledge to audiences outside the scientific community. Thanks to the Bodmer report which kick started serious study into the subject, science communication has now become a fully fledged discipline in its own right with universities offering courses to study it and institutions offering training. It highlights issues over how, what, when and who should communicate scientific knowledge. This essay will look at how scientists themselves think of science communication by looking at studies that have targeted scientists with the topic of communication.

The Role of Scientists in Public Debate[2] was commissioned by the Welcome Trust and conducted by MORI in December 1999 till March 2000. The author specifically wanted to assess the role of scientists in communicating to the public because research into this field mostly focused on public attitudes. The author describes that scientists have 'increasing calls for them to become more involved in communicating their research to the public.'[3] This increasing awareness that scientists themselves are seen as an important in science communication rather than outsiders such as journalists and government bodies is an interesting statement to be made because it seems that it is only an awareness that exists not a full program of communication.

The MORI study showed that mostly all scientists feel it is their duty to communicate science to the public. 84% agreed that it is their duty[4] and those scientists who felt their science has strong ethical and moral implications agreed more often than those who felt there discipline had no such implications. The discipline the scientists is involved in has an affect on how they view communication and when this is coupled with the fact that 53% of scientist felt the public had a lack of scientific knowledge[5] then misinterpretation of science is high on their agenda and is a factor in preventing them from communicating. This need to explain ethical and morally implicated sciences is a reaction to the sensationalist stories that the media have portrayed when science has not taken the lead role in communication, some examples are the BSE crisis and the GM debate.

Time is another factor which scientists highlighted as disabling their ability to communicate. The author writes:Many scientists feels constrained by day-to-day requirements of their job, leaving them with too little time to communicate (60%), or even to carry out their research (56%).[6]

However, over half the scientists would like to spend more time on communication, There is a hint here of a positive view of communication culture. 69% of the scientists interviewed felt it was scientists who had the main responsibility for communicating science but only 41% thought scientists were the people best to do so[7]. The reasons for this aren’t just time constraints, the amount of skills, training and previous experiences prevented the scientists of feeling well equipped to carry out communication.

Despite no full culture of communication apparent in the study, the interviewed agreed communication had many benefits and no communication had little benefit. 38% said there were no disadvantages of communication compared to 14% who saw no benefit. The advantages stated by the scientists directly improved the situation of the individual e.g. 32% saw communication as advancing their career and 29 % felt it would increase their chances of funding[8]. In this respect it is the individual who requires focus if we are to improve science communication. Training and awareness of the rewards would foster a communication culture. In turn this culture would enable scientists to feel more confident about stepping out their day-today constraints and practice science communication.

As a whole, the study focused on the broader topic of science and public debate, not just purely communication. The points used in this essay where drawn from the broad study by looking for specific examples of communication issues raised within it. The methodology used was one to one interviews where closed questions were asked with scalable answers e.g. slightly agree or strongly agree. Open ended questions were also used to gain a more qualitative understanding. The formal nature and quantitative format enable us to simply see in data how scientists as a group feel about science communication. This differs in approach to our next study.

Constructing Communication: Talking to Scientists about Talking to the Public[9] was conducted by Sarah Davies in 2009. Compared to The Public Understanding of Science the study has taken an informal approach. There are no quantitative figures but instead are the 'social voices' of scientists and opinions rather than statistics. The different approaches taken by the authors should be taken as an indicator as not only are the ideas of science communication complex but the process by which we can obtain the information is also complex.

Three purposes scientists see in science communication are education, recruitment and inspiration. Scientists see education in terms of both improving general understanding and to fill a 'knowledge vacuum'. As we saw nine years earlier in the MORI report, scientists are still framing their view of the public through the deficit model. The deficit model 'sees the public as blank slates or empty vessels-as minds in deficit that need scientific information.'[10] This one way model is very simplistic and it neglects the complex nature of the public understanding. However if we note that often scientists use this framework to view the public then we can better understand why they feel the way they do, for instance, communicating research to a deficit public would seem wasteful to a scientist if they felt it would not be understood by the audience. In contrast to this though, some scientists feel, as J Turney captures 'to know science is to love science'[11], meaning that 'public understanding equals acceptance.'[12] Although this is undoubtedly a biased statement, it is the notion as science as both enlightening and pleasing to the receiver that fuels all three factors mentioned. Recruitment and inspiration are seen as increasing through communication because once educated, the public will automatically want to pursue the course of science. Still, scientists think communication has real purposes that are beneficial and Davies divides the process of communication into two groups: 'Communication as Difficult or Dangerous'[13] and 'Communication as Positive, Complex, and, “Debate”'.[14]

Scientists describe that finding a balance between engaging your audience with whiz bang science and disseminating the real knowledge of the science makes it a difficlut and/or dangerous process. A dangerous assumption from the audience can me made or the process of finding this balance of interest against truth is difficult in itself. The process is found to be difficult because scientists feel they have a duty to convey the truth and not feed the audience dumbed down science. The audience in turn may misinterpret the knowledge presented them. This can lead to, scientists say, false hope of a cure coming now for serious illness, which in reality are years away or audiences may conduct incorrect self-diagnoses based on the knowledge received. Once again it seems scientists perceive the public through the deficit model. They have no qualms on communicating knowledge amongst other scientists or their peers, in fact, the MORI report showed that peers and colleagues were a more important audience to scientists than the public.[15] So it is not the communication process that they find difficult, it is because they are communicating it to the public that these concerns are raised.

There is evidence that a few scientists see communication to the public as positive. Here, the process is very straightforward, to have the ability to communicate your research to the public enables you to raise your own status and research, it enables you to tell your research to anyone because you have communicated it to a lay public and it is good to let the public know what is happening in the scientific community. For example one scientist descries communication as enabling him to 'sing their own trumpet'[16] and to tell the public 'what's going off'[17].

Partly we can see scientists thinking communication is about giving information to the public to let them know what is happening. Other scientists take this further and wish to empower citizens. Scientists should justify their research they are doing and scientists should not think that the ethical outcomes of research are purely for science to ponder. Once again, when ethical and political factors play into the research scientists feel it is important to involve the public. Through this, we see that some scientists think of communication as a two way process. Also, some scientists view the public as being able to contribute to ethically grey science. These scientists felt that the public should be consulted to find a balance for action that may evolve into a completely new way to conduct the research. However, Davies stresses that this was only one small group of researchers who discussed this at length.

The two articles were conducted in 1999/2000 and 2008. Davies suggests that science communication was bolstered by the Bodmer Report and that two-way communication is the goal of current policy making. Before the Bodmer report almost all communication was one-way and the goal of communicators was to fill the public with scientific information. The culture of scientists that existed then was different in that the scientists place wasn't out in the public eye but in the laboratory working on research. To popularise science was something that would damage a scientists career because science should remain within the scientific elite. The public responded to science with shock and awe, it was a powerful tool that helped improve society but they also feared it. When this did happen, experts were used to give ultimate explanations of the issues at hand.[18] One would argue that current science communication is failing to phase out these types of one way communicators because it has roots that date back some time into the history of science.

The evidence presented in this essay shows when talking about science communication now it is the deficit model that is most applicable. So, as a whole scientists feel they are conveyors of knowledge to an ill informed public. This knowledge vacuum creates a sense that communication can be difficult, dangerous and therefore one way. At least, scientists are aware of science communication and institutions have been setting up grants and funding to help ease the communication process but there is no coherent culture of communication. What scientists think about scientists think about communication differs depending on what the they study and availability to perform it. The extent to which these studies are a decent portrayal of scientists are indeed factors when answering the question set as the title. Yet, certain themes have prevailed through two different studies set in different contexts and conducted in different ways. That science communication is framed through the one way deficit model and external factors such as time prevent communication as being a process the scientist is willing to undertake.

Bibliography

Davies S R, 'Constructing Communication: Talking To Scientists About Talking to the Public', Science Communication, 29 No 4 (June 2009) 413-434 <http://scx.sagepub.com > [accessed 1 November 2010]

Gregory, James, and Steve Miller, Science In Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (Basic Books)

The Royal Society, The Public Understanding of Science,(1985) <http://royalsociety.org/displaypagedoc.asp?id=26406> [accessed 1 November 2010]

Turney J, To Know Science is To Love it? Observations from public understanding of science research (London)

Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, (December 1999 - March 2000) <http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/stellent/groups/corporatesite/@msh_peda/documents/web_document/wtd003425.pdf> [accessed 1 November 2010]

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[ 1 ]. The Royal Society, The Public Understanding of Science, (1985) <http://royalsociety.org/displaypagedoc.asp?id=26406> [accessed 1 November 2010] [ 2 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, (December 1999 - March 2000) <http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/stellent/groups/corporatesite/@msh_peda/documents/web_document/wtd003425.pdf> [accessed 1 November 2010] [ 3 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 4 [ 4 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 21 [ 5 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 14 [ 6 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 22 [ 7 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 26 [ 8 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 31 [ 9 ]. Davies S R, 'Constructing Communication: Talking To Scientists About Talking to the Public', Science Communication, 29 No 4 (June 2009) 413-434 <http://scx.sagepub.com > [accessed 1 November 2010] [ 10 ]. Jane Gregory and Steve Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, (Basic Books) [ 11 ]. J Turney To Know Science is To Love it? Observations from public understanding of science research (London) [ 12 ]. J Turney To Know Science is To Love it? p 4

[ 13 ]. Davies S R, 'Constructing Communication: Talking To Scientists About Talking to the Public' p 420 [ 14 ]. Davies S R, 'Constructing Communication: Talking To Scientists About Talking to the Public' p 423 [ 15 ]. Wellcome Trust, The Role of Scientists in Public Debate, p. 28 [ 16 ]. Davies S R, 'Constructing Communication: Talking To Scientists About Talking to the Public' p 423 [ 17 ]. Davies S R, 'Constructing Communication: Talking To Scientists About Talking to the Public' p 423 [ 18 ]. Jane Gregory and Steve Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, (Basic Books) p 1

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