“We need to be willing to feel a bit uncomfortable” – I, Science.
I’m at a conference today celebrating 21 years of the MSc in science communication I teach on at Imperial. Imperial’s student science magazine I, Science has a special edition for the anniversary and I’ve written a short opinion piece at the end, republished here. I call for more vision and more political awareness in our work, including more disagreement to get there. It’s sort of my farewell to Imperial, and to some extent a goodbye to mainstream science communication, as I’m moving to the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex from November.
A friend once told me about a meeting he attended in the mid-1990′s where, apparently, a group planned to take over UK science communication. Imagine the power! Imagine the influence! Imagine the money! Control which scientific ideas, voices and bits of information are placed into the public realm. Control what is seen as a rational decision about health, energy, agriculture and more. Control the collective ideas of the future.
This story is hearsay and not from the most reliable source so I won’t pass on who was meant to be at the heart of such a dastardly plot. I share it because it almost doesn’t matter who it was, or of it is true at all. The basic warning still stands: Control public debates about science and technology and you get to control many threads of how we spin our idea of progress.
For that reason I think it behoves everyone working in science communication – be this journalism, PR, engagement, education or showbiz – to recognise the politics of their work and keep an eye out for ideologies, interests and limitations they don’t personally subscribe to. We don’t need to agree on what the correct politics is, just that it’s there.
I got into science communication because, as an ever-so-earnest teenager, I thought it could save the world. A few years in the kids galleries at the Science Museum and an STS degree or three shock some cynicism into me, but the basic hope’s still there. If anything such cynicism has simply made me more aware of how easy it can be for science communicators to oil the wheels of some not especially nice or clever directions for the planet.
We need to check our creativity isn’t exploited. We need to ask economic, political and cultural questions as well as scientific ones. We need to ask these questions of ourselves, our friends and our funders as well as others. We need to be willing to feel a bit uncomfortable. We need to be able to disagree.
What we do has the power to change the world. It really does. Only ever in small incremental ways and never, ever enough. Compromises will always be necessary too. But each action adds up. If science communication really has come of age with our MSc’s 21st birthday, it needs to recognise its power as well as its limitations and stand up for itself.