I have taught science communication at the University of Auckland, New Zealand for 24 years. Back in 1992, when I began teaching, science communication was a boutique, innovative course taught to a small number of students. Now science communication has become a popular subject for undergraduate students, focussing on important communication skills to round out a student’s science degree by teaching them how to communicate science with diverse audiences.
Academics from across science disciplines have also joined the call for scientists to engage in the wider dissemination of science. This is often undertaken to increase the public’s scientific literacy and enrich family dinner table conversations (if such conversations still exist). There is an underlying hope this will improve public understanding of science and maybe increase public support for scientific technologies and innovations. There is also a growing implicit and indeed sometimes an explicit objective to engage in science communication to stimulate the younger generation to enrol in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at University. Any cause and effect relationship between this objective and any outcomes are, however, rather unknown.
However, as a social scientist who has taught and researched in the field of science communication, I must caution those engaging in science communication to avoid what I see as a growing trend for these endeavours to be little more than WOW SCIENCE. Don’t get me wrong, I have always felt envious of my colleagues who, when engaging in science communication activities, draw from their toolbox some WOW activities. The chemist who can blow things up, the physicist with their waterproof handkerchief, the mathematician who makes mind boggling puzzles and the marine scientist whose whale and dolphin video enthral audiences. As a social scientist I too would love some WOW activities, but alas I have none. I also do not undertake ‘experiments’ that a science communicator can wow over in their media science report – usually allocated to a quiet Monday. Yes these are all examples of science communication endeavours designed to interest people in science BUT they are to me a very limited and narrow view of what science communication is, or should be. These are WOW SCIENCE endeavours and like all good thrills the fun tends to last as long as the activity itself.
Science communication is more than talking AT people, it is also about engaging WITH people. Engaging is not just wooing and wowing an audience, engaging is about listening, respecting, understanding and learning. Today’s complex world needs communities to be informed to make significant decisions (ask David Cameron about that), but the public, or indeed more correctly publics, also have a right to decide about the type of world they wish to live in, and to debate or challenge ‘science experts’ about their contributions to that way of life, which are often carried out under the umbrella of 'scientific progress'. This requires two-way approaches to communication, which I contend is really true engagement with communities. This is unlikely to involve wowing audiences. Yes it may involve informing audiences to fill knowledge 'gaps', however, it is important that we do not focus only on this. Evidence shows that simply increasing awareness or informing does not lead to increased support for science or scientific innovations.
We need to make sure that today’s and tomorrow’s science communicators recognise and understand that science communication is about one-way AND two-way approaches to communication. WOW SCIENCE has its place but more and more we will need scientists not to seek to win audiences over, we need them to work with audiences. To do this effectively requires scientists to understand and to engage with people’s varied perspectives and values. It is about respecting the knowledge that each can bring to the table and finding a way to work together towards a shared vision. It is about showing humility. Humility enables us to be confident about what we do know, but it also lets us admit what we do not know. It allows us to see that others, and often those outside the science and technology sector, may be able to assist us in knowing by showing us new ways of knowing and new ways of doing.
This blog, I hope, will contribute to wider discussions about science/society interactions, whether it be reflections on my research or work, world events with relevance to my areas of interest, or tertiary teaching. It is my opinion drawn from my experiences and my more explicit knowledge. This is my soapbox in a virtual speakers’ corner, but like all good speakers’ corners, I recognise there will be hecklers and people who also want to have their say. Therefore I welcome your comments and also your contributions. While I stand on my soapbox this is not intended as a monologue, and I welcome you engaging. As I say to my students, it's more enjoyable and worthwhile communicating when there is an audience.
The Soap Box is my blog where I write about and comment on science / society interactions, especially as they relate to environmental issues.