Funding science communication

science museum sign

This is a picture of a large plaque at the front of London’s Science Museum. It’s thanking their various sponsors. Most museums have them. It’s as normal as a gift shop and a cafe.

I photographed it because I wanted to think of such signs not just as a vote of thanks, or as the design piece this museum seems to want to re-articulate theirs as, but as a sort of declaration of conflict of interest. In many respects, I think’s what it is. I also think this is why we should be pleased the museum has tried to make theirs into an arresting aesthetic object.

Museum sponsorship has a long and often controversial history. I wrote about it last year with respect to Shell and the Science Museum’s climate science gallery (see also follow up post on similar controversies at the Smithsonian). Today on the Guardian’s culture cuts blog, Tony Hill, Director of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry has a post reflecting on the impact to his institution. He notes that retail, catering and conferencing will become ever more important, as will sponsorship.

They also hope to increase the average donation per visitor from the current 3.5p per head to 50p. I’ve noticed that the London Science Museum, as well giving its wall of thanks a polish,  has filled its entrance hall with a load of  ‘keep science free’ signs asking for donations. I think it’s interesting that the Science Museum are playing on the rhetoric of keep Science free. Not the Science Museum, or scientific heritage, or scientific education, or buttons that are cool to press.

I agree that the museum’s work is part of science, even if it’s funded from the Department of Culture rather than the science budget. I made a similar point in a piece I wrote for January’s Chemistry World:

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from UK science after the government’s autumn 2010 spending review. Indeed, it was a largely grateful audience that met science minister David Willetts when, in the week after the spending review, he joined a panel for a ‘Science question time’ event at the Royal Institution (RI) in London. Sceptical, as scientists are wont to be, but relieved that cuts were not nearly as deep as expected, nor as deep as they will fall elsewhere. Near the end of the evening however, a hand went up from the back of the Faraday Theatre. Writer and astronomer Colin Stuart asked: what about other cuts to other areas, museums for example, how will those affect UK science? Stuart has a crucial point here: we should be careful of applying too narrow a definition of science funding.

Questions about where money might (or might not) come from concern people in lots of different areas involved in the sharing of science with broader society, not just museums. In book-publishing and journalism as much as publicly funded work. Sponsorship is an option for some, it’s also getting harder to find (it’s not like print journalism are riding high on advertising revenue right now). Increasingly, academics are asked to do communications work as part of their day-to-day work as a researcher. I think there are good reasons for asking researchers to do this, but I also think we need to give academics time and support to do such work. Time and support that costs money.

I also think that we shouldn’t force all academics to do public communication, and there is a role for professionals here too, but that’s a whole other (and frankly, slightly tedious) discussion, probably best left for a bit of ranting in the pub.

3 thoughts on “Funding science communication

  1. Mags

    Isn’t the other discussion that is fodder for a healthy pub ranting the discussion we should be having? There are some days where I feel that science communication is a tool to treat the symptoms of misunderstandings and fear of science rather than dealing with the causes of which there are many.

    1. alice Post author

      That seems like two quite separate issues there:

      (a) Should we leave questions of who does science communication for the pub? Well, for me, that depends on who “we” is. I’m sure the museum workers I mention above would rather we talked about museum funding! I do think there are important issues of how we support (and fund this support) asking our researchers to do communication, and how we change cultures of science to allow them to do this too. I don’t leave that to the pub, I do it for a living.

      (b) Is science communicaiton a tool to treat symptoms of misunderstandings and fear? Good question! I’d say this was the issue largely covered by the See-Through Science report. So if you want a chat about this, you might start there.

  2. Kate Cooper

    I helped with the organisation of the final conference of the EU-funded CASC (Cities and Science Communication) project held in Birmingham, UK this last week. Many of the delegates were from museums, science centres and universities across the EU, plus a (very) few journalists (though none from the UK).

    What went on was reported live at; see also twitter #eucasc.

    Within a couple of days, there will be a brief, punchy Conference Report summarising policy recommendations for science communication across the EU from the delegates. This will be posted on the blog.

    Comments and debate very welcome! There’s a large pot of EU money at stake, over €300M per year. How it’s spent matters.


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