Pondering PUS

PUS is 20 next year

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.

9 thoughts on “Pondering PUS

  1. Jackie Potter (@jackpot73)

    I love what you said in the podcast about the varying ways in which people access science and the degree to which we are interested. I fit into a lot of the disparate groups you discuss.
    My own relationship with science is probably quite common.

    I love the big-idea, glitzy science. I like having the information dished up in easily digestible, shiny packages on TV. But I view that as entertainment. It helps me to decide if I’m interested in finding out more, but often I just sit there and go “Wow! That’s really cool! I enjoyed that” and think no more about it. Or I latch magpie-like onto something that interests me initially, but drop it as soon as something newer & shinier shows up or I get to a point where I just don’t understand it, no matter how hard I try.

    My son is at an age where he is curious about everything. He likes to “do experiments” and loves the idea of science and engineering. But he also loves a lot of other things. His experiments are not confined to science or “inventing” but also include experimenting with language, movement & food. He adores David Attenborough, Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 and Bang Goes The Theory but would rather be out making & doing stuff than watching or listening to someone else do it.

    My other son has autism and my main interaction with science is in trying to keep up with and understand some of the scientific research that is going on in this area. Not because I want him “cured” but because the better I understand about WHY he does some of the things he does, the more I can do to help him function in a world that isn’t very forgiving of difference.

    Science is great and I love it. But science covers an awfully broad spectrum of things and I am often intimidated by elements of it and put off by the language used. For something that is often so beautiful, the language it is discussed in can be brutally ugly, not to mention confusing.

    1. alice Post author

      Thanks Jackie, I think you are right for the glitz drawing people in, and I don’t want to deny that, just point a note of caution of letting things end there, or being complancent that glitz is doing well.

      I think you are very right abou the broad spectrum too. Important point.

  2. Alex

    I wonder if it’s helpful to analyse ‘the public’ as a homogenous group? I have the privilege of being funded by a medical charity, rather than the taxpayer, and they strongly encourage engagement with patient groups, as part of a public outreach strategy. I’ve found that people with a personal stake in disease, whether directly or through an affected relative, are much more motivated to engage and question scientists on their work – whether or not it can be justified, financially, morally and ethically. .

    Similarly the institute I work in is a local landmark, both in terms of its physical structure and its reputation. Although it does not employ many locals it does a lot of outreach and the city is clearly very proud of it and its research. It is not uncommon to be questioned on the role of p53 as a tumour suppressor by local taxi drivers. In this respect I wonder if a case could be made for seeing research institutes as like a successful football team, they may not employ many locals, but their reputation brings pride to the city?

    Perhaps the public’s understanding of science would be improved by giving communities a stake in the science they support, whether financially, or by geography?

    1. alice Post author

      The idea that the public is not a homogeneous group but rather many different groups is a basic one in critiquing PUS (publics as many, including the NCCPE, like to put it). For many years I fully subscribed to this view, and in many respects still do, but I do think the intentionally vague term ‘the public’ has its uses. If you write for a specific group, you are more likely to serve them well, so should. But you limit yourself to them too. If you write for a loose sense of ‘the public’ (which doesn’t really exist) it can open your work up for groups/ individuals you hadn’t realised would be interested. I hope that makes sense.

      The having a stake issue is, I think, really important. It was something we talked a bit about at an event on citizen science I chaired last week – when the podcast of that is uploaded, I’ll post something with a link. Your “whether financially, or by geography” is interesting – I wonder if there are different reasons too? I’ve been thinking a lot this weekend about OPAL and Cancer Research UK’s My Projects, which might be seen as geographical and financial engagement respectively, but work other social/ emotional connections too.

  3. betterlivingthroughscience

    Very interesting discussion, thanks. My take on it is, that I agree with a point that Ben Goldacre (and probably others) has made in the past about the way science is taught in schools – there’s too much teaching of science-related facts, and not enough teaching about the scientific method. If we want the public at large to be minimally scientifically-literate (which must be a good thing) we should encourage more teaching of basic scientific methodology in the school science curriculum – even including things like basic statistics. This shouldn’t be difficult for most kids to pick up, if it’s taught in the right way.

    1. alice Post author

      The teach method for literacy is an old idea – you are correc that it’s not just Goldacre. It’s part of the National Curriculum in the UK, and has been for a while (though arguably not that well taught).

      Personally, I’m sketpical of this though, as I am to virtually all calls for greater scientific literacy. I think it’s too simplistic a view. It’d be lovely if it was so easy! But the world isn’t. More on this here.

  4. Arwen from Chameleon's Tongue

    Beautifully said. I think as science communicators we often try to communicate the “science is cool” message, rather than getting audiences to think about how science affects them. Rather than saying “trust me, I’m a scientist”, we could be saying “think critically, like a scientist”.

    1. alice Post author

      Thanks, part of me REALLY likes the don’t just trust me, think critically like me distinction! But I do also think we do need trust on occasion, and I also think we should be wary of linking critical to science as if scientists always are so (and are only ones to be so) – maybe just invite everyone to think with constructive criticism?


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