July 2016

[This is a modified version of an article published on The Conversation Africa]

Co-written by Prof Peter Weingart (SA Research Chair in Science Communication); Dr Lars Guenther (postdoctoral researcher in science communication) and Marina Joubert (researcher in science communication)

August 2016

Until a few years ago the term “science communication” would have been misunderstood by most people, including scientists, to mean the communication between scientists.

Now, countries, universities, and research institutions all over the world spend sizable amounts of their budgets on science communication. The lone press officer of the mid-size university of the 1980s who instructed journalists about the latest research achievements of its scientists has given way to a staff of six or even more professional ‘science communicators’ who are engaged with the production of multimedia science press releases; sophisticated science infographics; visually engaging research magazines; online newsletters and social media platforms to share science achievements with the outside world.

A vast network of interactive science centres has spread around the globe. Science festivals, science weeks and initiatives such as science theatre productions and science/art collaborations create further linkages between the ivory tower and everyday life. Mobile science outreach – trucks, trains and even ships – take science exhibits to people who otherwise would never come close to laboratories. More new formats have been designed to bring science closer to the general public, such as science cafés and various competitions where young scientists present their work to public audiences, including “Famelab”; “Three Minute Thesis” and “Falling Walls”.

In some countries, a boom of popular science magazines now tries to capture the attention of a public which was believed to be uninterested in science only shortly before making these a capital risk, especially when print media are in crisis.

In order to understand this surge of activities in which both governments and citizens’ groups are involved, it is necessary to look back more than half a century in history and also to entangle motives, formats and functions of what now comes under an increasingly broad range of activities under the umbrella called “science communication”.

In the mid-1950s a movement was initiated in the US called “Public Understanding of Science” (PUS). It was designed – in response to the Sputnik shock – to mobilize public support for the costly project to put a man on the moon and at the same time should interest young high school graduates to take up math, physics and engineering rather than creative writing and philosophy, in order to meet the challenges of space flight in particular and technological innovation in general.

Controversies over the risks of nuclear power and subsequently of biotechnology (recombinant DNA, genetically modified crops) brought about a new paradigm: public engagement with science and technology (PEST). This also implied a shift in the assumptions underlying these approaches. While PUS was based on the assumption that knowing more about science implied trust in and acceptance of science (the so called “deficit model”), PEST was based on the belief that a dialogical relation between scientists and the public was more appropriate. While PUS also assumed that “to know science is to love it” – a mistaken belief mostly held by scientists and science policy makers – PEST implied more realistically that to involve the public in scientific and technological projects was more likely to create trust but with the caveat that, as this would be an open ended process, could also call for alternative solutions. Thus, the scientific-technological community was no longer in the driver’s seat but the general public which, in democratic societies, should be.

Since then we have witnessed a “democratization” of science in the sense that governments are actively promoting public accounting by science in order to secure legitimacy for the considerable expenditures for an enterprise that receives public resources but is largely opaque to the outside observer.

Of course, democratization does not mean that the ordinary lay people now have a say about what is right in science or what is good research and what is bad. That has to remain the competence of the trained specialist just like the passenger cannot tell a pilot how to better steer his or her aircraft. But, the lay public can voice an opinion on what kind of research best meets its needs, and if it is satisfied with the achievements of the scientists working in their laboratories. The lay public may pose questions to scientists that induces them to do research not suggested by their disciplinary agenda and may even give rise to new insights that the public has not even thought about.

Thus, the scientific community is now in a position where it has to convince the public a) that it is delivering “value for money”, i.e. doing a good job, and b) that it is responsive to the needs and interests of the general public. Therefore, the scientific community has to communicate.

There are many ways and motives to communicate, from openly doing marketing, lobbying and advertising (done by PR experts); to critically reporting (the business of journalists); to raise interest and educate (as museums or TV science shows do); or to entertain (which film makers and novelists do). While all of these forms are perfectly legitimate some forms are more beneficial to society than others. All of them bring science to the attention of the general public and, thus, hopefully, contribute to raising the information level of public discourse. That is why science communication is so popular.

It is indeed so popular that university-based science communication teaching and research programmes are flourishing around the world. The South African government has set up two South African Research Chairs in Science Communication, one of which is located at Stellenbosch University (the other at Rhodes University). One of the first projects at Stellenbosch University will be to explore perceptions of science in different rural communities based on distance from or proximity to particular big science projects and science in general. An online course in science communication, attracting participants from across Africa and even further afield, has also been developed under the auspices of the Chair.