The Public Understanding of Science journal, volume 1.
The main journal in my field, Public Understanding of Science, is twenty next year. I recently had to look up an old paper in the first edition, and it was slightly depressing to see how little has changed. Still, the fact that I find much of it still relevant was also kind of inspiring, and does (sort of) make me feel part of a historical body of scholarship.
The journal’s name is a bit embarrassing for some; too strongly associated with the Bodmer Report (pdf) and top-down models of public communication apparently popular in the 1980s. Many people working in science communication, especially in the UK, are keen to stress they prefer the term ‘engagement’ over calls for public understanding. The journal takes a much broader view than this, and covers a lot of what might be dubbed ‘engagement’ as well as science in popular culture, science journalism, public attitudes and a lot more besides. It just happens that the journal was founded while the term ‘understanding’ was still in vogue, and keeps the name.
I gave a talk last week about the sorts of worries that prompted the public understanding of science movement as well as some of the reasons people turned their back on it, and Sarah Castor-Perry interviewed me about it afterwards. You can listen to the full podcast, or here’s a rough transcript of her first and last questions to me:
Sarah: What is the public understanding of science, and how is it different to something like ‘science communication’?
Alice: For me ‘science communication’ is an umbrella term which encompasses any kind of communication about science and I’m going to be really broad about the ‘science’ and ‘communication’ words. It could be two scientists sitting in a pub complaining about their boss, or an article in a really esoteric journal that is really hard to get hold of and is written in really difficult jargon than only a few people will ever understand and even less of them will ever read, or it could be Brian Cox on the telly, or it could be a science show with puppets for four year olds at the National History Museum, or parents talking about vaccinations at a schoolgate, or a news story about spaceships. It could be all of those things. Whereas the Public Understanding of Science or PUS is more specially a worry about what ‘the public’ (which I guess we could define as non-scientists) know and think and is generally used to refer to a particular part in history around the 1980s and 1990s when there was a real worry about a need to tell the public stuff. The idea was that scientists would tell the public things, and it was imagined the public would just listen.
Sarah: Do you feel reasonably positive about the public relationship with science, or do you feel there is distrust and a lack of knowledge and a lack of interest, or are you quite positive about how popular Brian Cox and Bang Goes the Theory and things on television, and Lates at the Science Museum? Positive or negative?
Alice: Um, negative because it’s positive? To explain that… if my aim was for people to like something called science then yes, this thing seems to be flying quite high at the moment. But I also think that a lot of this is a kind of glitzy, glamourous ‘science is cool’ way which is not exactly good. If you just think science is great and look at these people who are simply going to give you good knowledge that is reliable, I’m not so sure. I’d rather have a public aware of the problems of science, who questions it and helps make science as good as it should be. I think that’s what most scientists want too. I don’t think most scientists want people to breathlessly go ‘wow, you’re great, tell me your wonderful knowledge’. They’re are happy to have a conversation and they know that what they have done is potentially useful for some people, but they don’t want to be made out to be gods, or painted as music stars. I don’t think that would help science in the long run, or society in the long run either. I worry that a country that loves science ‘because it. is. awesome’ will end up not liking science because something else will come along. More to the point, we’ll like shampoo advert science. Because if you look at those adverts that a lot of scientists get annoyed about – the reason they work is because people like science. People get pulled in by that because they are working with an image of science, rather than real science and real conversations with real people. So if we have more of these conversations, and were maybe more critical, we’d have a more productive relationship. So, yeah, if my concern was if people liked science I’d probably be positive, but I think that’s the wrong concern.