In the first cycle of the Chair (2015-2020), under the leadership of Prof Peter Weingart, the chair’s research program was divided into two research groups, one focused on Science Communication Theory and the other on Science Communication Practice. The SciCom Theory stream explored the theoretical, conceptual and methodological issues referring to the perceptions of science in different populations, impacted by cultural and religious belief systems as well as sources of information, such as the mass media and digital communication channels; as well as the structure of the public discourse, trust and distrust in scientific knowledge shaped by media and communication policies. The SciCom Practice stream examined the development of communication techniques to effectuate the communication of scientific content to a broader public or to special stakeholder groups; the survey and evaluation of science communication activities to inform and improve policies; and the development of science communication techniques serves to build capacity in the field.

Research projects

Perceptions and expectations of science among different parts of the SA population

Science communication in industrialized countries has two objectives: first, the objective of governments to accelerate knowledge and technology transfer and to secure sufficient ‘human capital’ especially in STEM fields in order to make national economies more competitive; second, to create awareness and acceptance of S&T in view of a gap of understanding between the relatively obscure and abstract world of science and rapid, sometimes risky technological change and the general public. In the respective science policy discourse that has developed over more than five decades especially the latter objective has been translated into communication strategies that are partly informed by learning from past failures of effectiveness, and partly by the attempt to involve the public and bring S&T policies in line with democratic principles rather than subjecting it to top-down decision-making. In the South African context this has been cast in the government’s ‘science engagement strategy’ (SES). One of its explicit goals is to “develop a critical public that actively engages and participates in the national discourse of science and technology to the benefit of society”. The implementation of this political objective presents huge problems, the most obvious being the general level of education, the cultural and religious diversity and the range of economic wellbeing and of different interests resulting from that. From this it follows that the study of ‘Perceptions and expectations of science among different parts of the SA population (rural, semi-urban and urban)’ must have highest priority.

Mass media reporting of science as a source of public perceptions

Monitoring of science reporting in the mass media is relevant for several reasons. First, since the mass media remain the central source of information for the larger part of the population in SA (and are even agenda setters for online news feeds by other platforms) they select topics and most likely shape perceptions and attitudes about science. Second, science journalism is considered to have a crucial role in the reporting about science especially because of its independence from institutional interests. It is even ascribed an important role in safeguarding the public discourse and, thus, contributing to the preservation of democracy. Yet, it has suffered disproportionally from cost cuts in the wake of the crisis of the print media. Third, as the advertisement based business model of the traditional print media has run into crisis new models of funding are being explored internationally. One question is whether the character of science journalism is changing altogether, moving away from general reporting in a popularizing mode about science to specific thematic areas like health, environment, energy or the like.

Science communication and social media

Social media continue to attract attention, especially from younger age cohorts. The revolutionary changes of the public sphere, of the media landscape, the partial disappearance of traditional intermediaries, notably journalists, present science communication with new challenges. Chief among them are the reliability and veracity of communication, protection from strategic abuse by interested parties, and thus trust in and credibility of the communication.

Science communication by scientists and scientific organisations – motives, audiences, formats

Science communication is carried out by a multitude of organizations and actors with a wide range of different motives and interests, all competing for attention. The obvious danger is that the public is unable to identify and distinguish the different motives. The credibility of science communication is at stake. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the competition among science organizations such as universities and independent research institutions as well as government agencies and funding organizations has led to an inflationary development of science communication rhetoric and formats. Rarely is the rhetoric put to test or are different formats evaluated for their effectiveness. Thus, the empirical underpinning of science communication rhetoric and the evaluation of the effectiveness of different formats are pressing research objectives.