The discipline of science communication

The latest edition of the Journal of Science Communication is up, and I’m in it.

I was asked to discuss the question ‘does science communication deserve special attention as an academic discipline?’ Read my contribution, and you’ll see I don’t really answer the question. Or rather I answer with a simple negative and then, um… spin that out for a few pages with a long list of references. Susanna Hornig Priest’s contribution is much better. Read that instead.

Something Hornig Priest refers to is the difference between inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary work (or, the difference between connecting disciplines and mixing them). I think this sort of awareness of discipline is something shared by everyone involved in science communication. As I argue in my contribution, for me science communication is less a community of researchers, and more a space where we deal with the fact such communities of research exist. It is a consequence of the spaces left between fragmented expertise, a weird by-product of modernity. So, I refused to answer JCom’s question properly not just out of petulance, but because I feel more like someone who works in the spaces between academic disciplines than one desiring of building their own.

This middle ground is not always an easy place to reside, but an awareness of this unease is part of how I think science communication scholars can be useful; as we examine, reflect, debate and help others manage the clashes between communities of knowledge. As such, I think it necessarily involves a fair bit of both multi and inter-disciplinary work, as well as a strong awareness (I’d personally add, involvement) with practitioners and audiences. This does also mean you spend most of your life ignorant of most of what you are looking at. You feel constantly stupid (but in exchange you get to see loads of different amazing things).

It’s not for everyone and nor should it be, but it’s where I work.

13 thoughts on “The discipline of science communication

  1. Guy Nassé

    It is an interesting point you make. I think I have always seen communication as being part of science rather than a separate speciality. However, where it is most important possibly, is at the boundaries between different disciplines. Frequently, this is often where scientific progress occurs and I wonder whether that is where we need better understanding of the art of communication between experts.

    1. alice

      Nothing wrong with media studies! Except perhaps the odd bit of snobbery about science communication… yes, sci com studies, even media studies thinks it’s “mickey mouse” :) Also, that not all sci com work falls under media stuff (literature, film, cultural and policy studies all relevent too).

      1. Kat Arney

        I agree – Sorry to imply that I thought there was something wrong with it – should have taken more time to spell out what I meant! One of the most interesting parts of my sci comm course (Birkbeck) for me was looking at the portrayal of science in the media – up until that point I’d always dismissed it as waffly nonsense, or the easy option for A level students who aren’t any good at proper subjects ;) Boy, was I proved wrong! It’s now an area I’m fascinated by, both professionally and personally.

        See also, my conversion to philosophy :)

  2. Carl Legge

    “Six month’s ago I couldn’t even spell physicist, now I are one.”*

    To borrow from recent political debate, it’s axiomatic that not all scientists ‘speak human’ or even the language of their audiences. Depending on what they are trying to achieve it’s not necessarily a problem.

    Of the ‘Five Ws’ the most important starting point is ‘Why?’ Why are you [scientist] communicating – what are you trying to achieve? It’s trite that this helps you with the other Ws and in formulating target audience, message, media etc.

    So I’m not sure I understand the question you were posed. It seems incomplete. Does science communication deserve a (sic) special attention as an academic discipline: by who, for what purpose? If it helps scientists and non-scientist communicators do the job of communicating better, then most would say ‘yes’. All our Reithian wishes would be better achieved and probably more economically efficiently too.

    If all it does is prompt is academic navel gazing or worse then merda taurorum animas conturbit.

    *BTW – I’m not (a physicist – LLB MBA me) and it’s apocryphal and normally said about engineers.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      The extra “a” was my typo caused by blogging in the middle of the night when I haven’t had a day off for about a month – fixed now.

      More importantly – a large part of what science communication as an area of scholarly study has contributed to the world is the posing (answering, deconstruction and generall discussion) of what you see as the missing part of the question. It’s one of the first things I get my students to talk about. The other key contribution is their involvement in the professionalisation of the field – science communication increasingly done by science communicators (who often have degrees in the subject, hence academics like me to teach it) – not scientists.

      1. Carl Legge

        Alice – thanks for the reply.

        You highlight a parallel between the art/science of communication and the academic study in my view. The importance of both is in what you achieve with it – not what you say.

        So the ‘fault’ in a missed communication lies with the communicator not the audience. And if treating something as an academic discipline improves its execution all well and good.

        I’m curious though as to why it’s important to the Journal and the ‘field’ to have the question answered. What’s the consequence of answers either way and is that, of itself, important?

        1. alicerosebell Post author

          Not sure why people want an answer to that question – my response was that it’s not really worth worrying about. In the end the journal labelled the pieces “Road maps for the 21st-century research in Science Communication” , so perhaps they weren’t so sure about it either. (they didn’t tell us this in advance though – might have been helpful in composing my piece…)

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  4. Alastair Gittner

    I am certain that Science Communication deserves to be designated a discipline in its own right. You are only working in the spaces between disciplines in as much as you are the glue that links those disciplines and the general level of understanding of society. As a science educator (I am Head of Science at a secondary school in Yorkshire) I am communicating science every day. A communicator who’s listeners have to pass exams, alas. Every day I am trying to link the understanding of my students with the science I need them to understand. If you accept a constructivist view of communication then we are trying to scaffold the new learning around the understanding that is already there. As someone who also gives talks on science to adults I still feel that this basic premise is necessary to be an effective communicator.
    As educators we are encouraged to study what is known about how students gain scientific understanding (eg CLISP; Children’s learning science project from the excellent Leeds Education department). Not unsurprisingly acquisition of understanding for both individuals and societies can follow a prescribed path. Let me give an example. Walking with children in the dark and they will talk about how they need to switch on their “torch eyes,” their understanding of vision being that something comes out of the eyes onto the object to be seen. This idea was one shared by the Ancient Greeks and can still pervade into secondary school, as I know to my cost when teaching vision. I have no doubt that this idea may well still persist into adulthood in a percentage of the population. As Lewis Wolpert discusses in the excellent “Unnatural Nature of Science” scientific thinking is not common sense and requires a particular way of working. Surely as communicators gaining a full understanding of how science is understood is necessary for us to help our audience.
    Unfortunately I am not fully au fait with what is included in a science communication course but I would like to hope that science learning is part of it. We currently have won the debate in schools and students have to learn all three disciplines (biology, physics and chemistry.) Unfortunately some of my colleagues were educated at an earlier time when this was not the case and some have not studied biology personally since they were 13. With modern science it’s more important than ever that students understand many disciplines so we need multidisciplinary communicators/educators but also communicators that can make the links between disciplines.
    So to communicate effectively we must have a multi-disciplinary understanding, and a discipline of our own to understand how to help our readers make the inter-disciplinary links to aid their own understanding.

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