Tag Archives: publics

What’s this public ‘engagement’ with science thing then?

This is a linked-up blog-version of a talk I gave for Imperial’s grad school. It’s all basic stuff, but I hope it’s useful.

A few months ago, a colleague asked for my ‘top ten tips for public engagement’. My first response was a bit curt, I only had three:

  • There is no such thing as ‘the public’.
  • What on earth is ‘engagement’ supposed to mean?
  • I’m not entirely convinced by this ‘science’ word either.

I was taking the mickey, but there is a serious point here. If I really have to reduce all the things I have learnt about the public communication of science, then I’d argue it’s the specifics that matter.  ‘The public’, ‘engagement’, ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ are just simplifications we’ve made up to make the big wide complicated world easier to understand. These terms are still real and meaningful, but at the very least, they’re open to a bit of playful reinterpretation.

Considering the ‘public’ and ‘scientists’.

There are various studies of public opinion with respect to science – this paper and this report are both worth reading if you are interested (some more links here). Most people, especially British people, on the whole seem to quite like and trust scientists. Still, the people that are less enamored by science still matter, and it’s wrong to lump them together, or assume they all have the same reasons for feeling whatever disconnect with science they do. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that much uniformity within the group that say they do like science.

Most critical work in science communication emphasises the multiplicity of ‘the public’, as the National Coordinating Center for Public Engagement (NCCPE) puts it, ‘everyone is a member of the public’, and yet everyone is different; ‘Thinking of the public as an undifferentiated whole is unlikely to help develop any kind of purposeful, responsive and respectful engagement’.

As the NCCPE goes on, one commonly used tactic is to talk about publics rather than the singular public. Another is to take my first ‘top tip’ and say there is no such thing as the public. Much as I think it’s a statement worth making, I don’t think you should take it too seriously.

  • Firstly, the term public is used, and is made real by this use. If you are interested in this, there’s a nice paper by Mike Micheals where he talks about Publics in Particular and Publics in General (or ‘PiPs’ and ‘PiGs’) and the different ways in which different ideas of ‘the public’ or ‘a public’ get used with respect to science.
  • Secondly, this sense of ‘the general public’ can be useful. People in science communication are often told to target their audiences. Work out who you want to talk to and learn about them so you know how to talk to them. This is important. But it can also be very limiting. Knowing your audience is great, but who says you want to be limited to who you know? If you aim for an imaginary ‘general public’ you force yourself not to assume much knowledge or particular interest, and therefore open it up to more people. It acts as a sort of heuristic.

Writing for a broad and vague sense of ‘the general public’ can make everything a bit bland though. It’d be boring if all science communication was like this. Within the big field of science communication, there can be both narrow and broad aimed work. You can try to know your target audiences as best as possible whilst also being open to new ones you had no idea existed/ cared. It depends on your project.

I’m similarly sceptical about lumping this whole ‘science’ thing together (and in particular, lumping together ‘scientists). Science is big and complex, its ideas about itself vary and change over time. Maybe it should be pluralised to sciences, like publics. Or again, maybe we could just talk about specific people, ideas and approaches. Leave loose talk about ‘science’ to philosophers and advertising executives, and instead focus on sharing what you have particular expertise in, be honest about what you don’t know and think about all the new things you might learn from engaging in a bit of broader discussion about your work.

All of this is why some of the most powerful engagement work happens face to face – rather than writing something and delivering it to an audience – as scientists and ‘publics’ (whoever any of these people actually are) can gradually learn what it is about each other; discover what they do and do not have in common, and discursively find ways to connect.

What’s this ‘engagement’ thing about then?

A recent UK government report (pdf, p20) described public engagement with science and technology as ‘an umbrella term’, encompassing a range of activities from science festivals, to the news media, public debates or policy consultations. If one was being unkind, one could say ‘umbrella term’ is a polite way of saying so many people are using the word, it’s started to loose any coherent meaning. However, the report goes on to stress that ‘any good engagement activity should involve aspects of listening and interaction’, and this is key.

With the stress on listening and interaction, they are deliberately distancing themselves from more top-down approaches, which are seen as a bit old fashioned. As I’ve written before, there is a story many people in science communication tell about their professional past, is as used to believe in the deficit model but have now seen the light and are gradually moving towards greater and greater degrees of dialogic enlightenment.

In reality, nothing’s that linear, but the short version of this long and complex story is that in 1985 Walter Bodmer wrote a report for the Royal Society calling for a greater Public Understanding of Science (PUS). Although the role of this has been argued over since (e.g.), it seemed to formalise a feeling that the public needed to be onside with science, and that this was largely the public’s fault (they were ignorant, too easily led by the media… it was anything other than science’s fault).

Critics of a PUS approach, such as sociologist Brian Wynne (famous for his study of sheep farmers), dubbed their attitude to the public ‘the deficit model’, arguing it unrealistically black-boxed science and the public and naively imagined knowledge should (and could) simply flow from the former to the latter. There’s a basic media studies critique to be made: people don’t simply believe what you tell them, especially if you set up a patronising structure which defines them as stupid.  There are also epistemological problems; by many definitions, it is ‘unscientific’ to assume science has all the answers ready to pass on to the rest of the world. A new view emerged, stressing a more contextual approach to the public’s reactions, use and knowledge of science. Post ‘BSE crisis‘, a series of publications stressed the need for greater openness and transparency, with a special focus on the need to be careful when it comes to communicating risk. The 2000 House of Lords report on Science and Society is the most important of these, known for formalising in a ‘new mood for dialogue’ which took on the sociological critiques of the deficit model.

Where now?

The legacy of the 80s and 90s leaves us with two key models for thinking about the public communication of science (although in terms of actually doing such work, things are always more complex):

  • The Deficit Model. This assumes the public are deficit in scientific knowledge and need to be better informed. It is patronizing and unrealistic about the public, the media and science. This is generally hated by the professional science communication community. So much so, people mention it at conferences and you can head people going “booo”, as if they were at a pantomime.
  • Dialogue. Rooted in sociological ideas as well as a lot of work by geographers. It acknowledges the scientific worth (as well as democratic and rhetorical necessity) of listening to non-scientists, as well as the contingency and continental changing nature of science. It is discursive rather than conclusive, and arguably has limited political impact.

… and there’s not been much new in thinking since then. I wish there was (if only because I’m personally a bit bored with people banging on about the deficit model). There is the notion of ‘upstream’ engagement, but that’s got its problems too as a model, and is a it old too.

Perhaps we don’t need new ideas though; we just need to put them into practise. I’d also say that I think there have been shifts in practise, and in many respects the most exciting innovations come at a very local level. It’s the specifics that matter. Often, it’s the specifics that are the most interesting too.


In an attempt end on a positive point, I’ll finish by forcing myself to take that ‘top tips’ idea seriously, and I’ll even stretch as far as five.

  • Don’t be silly about ‘the public’. Remember: knowing your audience and targeting specific groups can be very powerful, but so can the serendipitous connections made by packaging your work as accessibly as audience as possible.
  • Communication is something you take part in, it’s not something you deliver. If you spend as much time listening as you do talking not only are you more likely to find yourself listened to, but you might well learn something inspiring.
  • Don’t be try to be an advocate for the whole of science, but don’t let yourself be limited by its boundaries either. You don’t have to brand something ‘science’, think instead about the object of your study, or perhaps a specific method or approach. What is it exactly you want to share precisely?
  • There is a long history to debates over science and society. This means there are small pots of ideas, people and money which are worth being aware of and tapping into. Don’t be limited by this history, and be prepared to see public communication work as part as (and funded as part as…) your research.
  • There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but be realistic. This means keeping in mind the limitations of your project, including pragmatic concerns like money, time, your professional image and the weather. You are unlikely to change the world. You may not even change any minds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, you may well have helped move towards a bit of world/ mind changing. These things take time. None of them are easy.

If you have any more top tips, or want to disagree with any of mine, please do add them in the comments.

I’ve also put together a list of links to further resources. EDIT added here before posterous closese:

A few useful resources for scientists interested in Public Engagement with Science (very UK focused):

Science Communication 101 bibliography

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked me to post an introductory bibliography for science communication studies. I was slightly wary, because the literature in the field is rather scattered and can be a bit dense in places. Moreover, I don’t like the idea that you need to have read any particular source to understand science communication. I do think they can help, but you can learn about the topic in a range of ways. The idea of a science communication ‘canon’ is silly.

Still, inspired by a recent set of History of Psychology bibliographies and a great one at the Science and Democracy Network, I thought it might be useful. I’ve tried to give sources which are accessible: both in terms of being easy to read and being easy to find (and as much as possible, free to download).

Let me know if I’ve missed something you think is amazing and want to share with others. I should also say upfront that this is quite UK centric.

  • Science in Public, by Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. This textbook is comprehensive, clear and ever so slightly cynical (in a good way). Annoyingly, it is also about 15 years old. It looks a bit dated in places and I wish they’d do an update, but most of the content still stands up and it’s still the first book I’d recommend.
  • These two recent books from the OU on Science Communication in an Information Age are designed as introductions and are pretty good (even if they don’t really get to grips with what they mean by information age…).  I especially like the essays by Alan Irwin, Robert Doubleday, Jack Stilgoe, James Wilsdon, Sarah Davies and Felicity Mellor.
  • See Through Science by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis, published by Demos. This is free, downloadable, clearly written and reasonably short. It’s the manifesto for ‘upstream’ science communication, but’s also a great introduction to ideas in public participation in science. I tell students to read it to help revise for exams. Other Demos publications The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are recommended.
  • Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of science which are relevant to science communication. Its focus is environmental science, but much of it is more broadly applicable. I can similarly recommend Steven Epstein’s  Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge as a book on a reasonably specific topic which manages to introduce a load of key ideas along the way.
  • The 2000 House of Lords Report on Science and Society. Yes, a Lords report that is totally readable and incredibly influential. For real. The government recently tried to update this with a series of more specific reports, and the one on trust is worth a read (though most of the others dated quite quickly). This recent study of scientists talking about public engagement from LSE’s BIOS Centre will also help bring things up to date.
  • If you want the classics, you should read Misunderstanding Science? from Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne. It’s worth listening to Wynne’s interview in the CBC “How to Think About Science” podcasts for a bit more context. Irwin’s Citizen Science is also worth a read. These will help explain why people bitch about a so-called ‘deficit model’. Stephen Hiltgartner’s paper on the ‘Dominant View’, is also useful for understanding a shift from talking down to the public about science and instead attempting to inspire conversations between science and society.
  • Peter Broks’ Understanding Popular Science is good for the long view, including some clear introductions to areas of social theory (or at least notions of ‘modernity’ etc). Don’t be put off by the title, it is about science communication in general (by which I mean it includes what some people prefer to call ‘engagement’ rather than ‘popular science’). If you like your social theory with a more sociological smell, try Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge by Alan Irwin and Mike Michael.
  • Oh yeah, I edited a book once. I forgot about that. You should totally read that. Ok, don’t. It’s really rare, but the introduction, which you can download for free, is probably quite useful. My essay in that book – on the way we frame children’s relationships with science – is also free to download.
  • There is an Encyclopedia of Science Communication. Obviously it is BRILLIANT because I wrote two of the entries. It is also huge, heavy and £220. So… um, see if your local university library has a copy.
  • If you are interested in studies of what the public think/ know about science you really should try to get hold of Bauer et al’s ‘What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research’. It introduces all the main approaches and publications in this area, with brilliant clarity and fair context.
  • If you are interested in science in the news media, Stuart Allan’s Media, Risk and Science is a nice clear introductory textbook. I can also recommend this report from the University of Cardiff. It’s nothing especially shocking and starting to show its age, but I’ve found myself sharing it loads over the last couple of years as a great introduction to basic media analysis of science. Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science is another classic, and Martin Bauer’s longitudinal analysis of 20th century British science news is fascinating. There are loads of other great books on the topic, but they are quite rare.
  • If it’s popular science writing you are interested in, then have a read of some of Jon Turney’s essays on the topic. Elizabeth Leane’s Reading Popular Physics is also worth a look, and for a historical view, it’s hard to beat Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace (it’s not just about books either).
  • When it comes to ‘new-ish media’, science bloggers are a reflexive bunch and what they write about themselves is often worth a look. It doesn’t always have the same depth or breadth of view as you’d expect from academic research, but their subjective experience can be useful and interesting too. Ed Yong’s journalism category is certainly worth keeping a eye on. Alternatively, Brian Trench has some neat overviews of science online in these three books.

As with any list of introductory texts, it’s a bit vanilla in places. If you want the juicy bits, follow up the interesting sounding references in bibliographies. Or, for more up to date and detailed work, have a dig around the field’s main two journals: Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. You might also find Science as Culture, the Social Studies of Science, and Science, Technology and Human Values useful. There is also the Journal of Science Communication – a fair amount of it is just masters’ dissertations, but these can be interesting and it’s open access.

Science education for all

Back in 1976, science teacher turned sociologist Michael D Young suggested science education sorts people into three types: pure scientists, applied scientists and failures. The final group, he went on, would forever feel at a distance from science, alienated by the experience.

Arguably, this view is a tad gloomy and simplistic (not to mention, outdated?) but there is a nugget of truth here. There are social divides around science, and these are probably caused and facilitated by structures of scientific learning.

The problem, at least as I’ve heard it voiced by many people in education, is that the universities demand too much specialisation. They want undergraduates to have arrived in their lectures halls already steeped in several years of specialised study, even at the expense of having done anything else. In making such demands, they support a system which asks young people to opt in or out of science aged 15. Many people would much rather we sacrificed depth for breadth and instead asked 16-19 year olds to take more subjects, perhaps with a large self-directed subject to allow some specialisation. This would mean more people leave school knowing some science, just as it means more people leave with languages, some feeling for history, geography and literature (etc…). But no, the lobby for specialisation win.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see a recent report from the Royal Society argue that we modify the curriculum to allow 16-19’s to study a wider range of subjects. This would expose more students to science and therefore increase the likelihood of them continuing to do so at university (increasing the ‘pool’ of scientists as they put it).

One might argue that such broadening of access to science will serve more than just the Royal Society’s ‘pool’. Indeed, the idea that school science should be for the many who do not take science further, as well as the few who do, is a guiding principle behind the 21st Century Science project. Although there is provision for those who want to take up scientific training, 21st Century Science aims to serve those who will grow up to be ‘consumers’, not producers, of science (I first spotted this metaphor in Hollins, 2001: 22).

I dislike the producer/ consumer distinction between those who will grow up to practice science and those who will not. Aside from the argument that 15 year olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, I think that a taste of what it is to train to be a scientist should be a shared cultural experience. 21st Century Science argue this is a ‘courses for horses’ approach which provides targeted learning. I think it’s culturally divisive.

A friend recently said that schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science. I couldn’t agree more. Not because it means a load of young people will have to sit in a room while a teacher bangs on about some super-important topic or another, but because these young people will have to do so together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else.

At this point, it’s probably worth saying that 21st Century Science is a set of GCSEs – exams taken at 16 – but the philosophy goes further than this, and was trialed at post-16 level (for more detail see also the Beyond 2000 report, especially point 4.2 on ‘who is science education for?, as well as Millar & Hunt, 2001, and Miller, 1996).

I also worry about 21st Century Science’s special provision for those wanting ‘applied’ forms of scientific training, a sort of middle path between routes for scientists and non-scientist. It would be overly-cynical to say they offer posh boys a chance play doctor, whilst hardworking girls get to be nurses and those who haven’t the opportunity or inclination can hang around to be treated as patients. However, it is all too easy to imagine how pre-existing social divisions might hook onto such a structure. Something that always annoys educationalists, and helps point us to the politics of references to ‘the public’ here: the first politician to publicly advocate a shift in school-science to focus on the majority who don’t become scientists, was, in 1971, the then secretary for state for education… Margaret Thatcher (Layton: 1994: 39).

If you really want science for all, then forget fights over whether to focus a curriculum for future-scientists or future-publics, and instead teach everyone together. Most teenagers haven’t had the chance to decide whether they want to be a scientist when they grow up yet. Moreover, whether they do or not, adult scientists and ‘publics’  should be able to discuss science together from some sort of common standpoint. Work together, not apart.

Anyway, this is all just my opinion. I’d be interested to hear what other people think.


  • Hollins, M (2001) ‘Keeping school science in step with the changing world of the 21st century’, Education in Science, vol.194: 22-23.
  • Layton, D (1994) ‘STS in the School Curriculum: a Movement Overtaken by History?’ Solomon, J and Aikenhead, GS (eds) STS Education: international perspectives on reform (Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York).
  • Millar, R & Osborne, J (eds) (1998) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future (London: Kings College, London) pdf download.
  • Millar, R (1996) ‘Towards a science curriculum for public understanding’. School  Science Review, vol.77 no.280 pp.7-18.
  • Millar, R & Hunt, A (2001). Science for Public Understanding: a different way to teach and learn science. School Science Review, vol.83 no.304.
  • Young, MD (1976) ‘The Schooling of Science’, in Whitty, Geoff & Young, Michael (eds) Explorations in the Politics of School Knowledge (Driffield: Nafferton Books).

Science and its spam filter

Yesterday, I was part of a panel entitled ‘Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries?’ at the Science Online conference. You can see an abstract for the panel over on Marie-Claire’s Shanahan’s blog (scroll down to second half of post).

My talk spoke in quite general terms about science and social boundaries. I did this using an analogy I’ve stolen from David Dobbs; a spam filter.

Cast your mind back to the ‘Great Arsenic Bug Saga of 2010’. If you can’t recall the details, I can recommend Ed Yong’s link-filled timeline of the story. In terms of the point I want to make, all you need to know is that some scientists criticised a paper by a team of NASA astrobiologists. Some of these critiques were voiced on blogs. When asked about the critique, a spokesperson from NASA was reported as saying ‘the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers’. Instead, they’d keep to ‘scientific publications’.

David Dobbs blogged about this statement from NASA, suggesting it was a call to ‘pre-Enlightenment thinking’. Later, he told the Guardian Science podcast:

I got a lot of reactions saying ‘you can’t just open this process to everyone or there’ll be a rabble, you’ll spend all your time arguing with anti-science people and so on’. Well, you’re trying to have a spam filter here, right? You’re trying to draw a circle within which trolls can’t come in and dominate the conversation. I guess to an extent that makes sense, but you don’t want to draw a circle that boxes out legitimate scientists like Rosie Redfield.

I love this analogy. In some respects, science has always had a spam filter. On one side there’s a commitment to free debate, on the other side there is frustration with those who are seen as at best time-wasting and at worst, mendacious. Science has always sought to break, or at least not be limited by, social boundaries. At the same time science has always needed these boundaries to, and benefited from them.

Another analogy which can help us think about this issue is that of a map. This one I’ve stolen from sociologist/ historian Thomas Gieryn. In his book The Cultural Boundaries of Science, he argues that rather there being one, singular essential criteria for what makes something scientific, this thing we call science is the consequence of many different declaration of boundaries which, over time, have helped define what science is and what it is not. To quote Gieryn in more lyrical mode:

Mount Science, located just above the town of Reason in the State of Knowledge, which is adjacent to the States of Fine Prospect and Improvement, across the Sea of Intemperance from the State of Plenty, all this on the other side of the Demarcation Mountains from the towns of Darkness, Crazyville, and Prejudice, and the islands of Deaf, Blind and Folly (Gieryn, 1999: 6. See also pages 8-9 for actual map)

A Gieryn stresses, this is ‘not idle play with Venn diagrams’ (Gieryn, 1999, 12). Just as a map provides a traveler with physical directions, such ‘cultural cartography’ for science is used as shorthand when faced with a range of practical decisions (e.g. do we get a flu vaccine; is a hybrid car worthwhile?). Modern society is rooted in the advantages of specialist knowledge. We can’t all be specialists in everything, so we have to rely on trust, something Gieryn’s metaphorical map aims to capture.

Gieryn talks about ‘boundary work’; the active process of producing symbolic boundaries which our location in cultural space. We all do this all the time, and it’s not always intentional, neither is it necessarily malign. Educational researcher Basil Bernstein also wrote about the importance of symbolic boundaries back in the 1970s: the positioning of furniture in a classroom to emphasise the authority of a teacher, curriculum divides between subjects, the use of language or cultural references which some children understand but may be lost on others (Bernstein talks about this in terms of social class and the perpetuation of social inequalities through education).

One of the things I like most about the cartographic approach is that maps articulate shared space as well as boundaries. I think it’s worth emphasising that community and exclusion can be  two sides of the same coin. Jargon and in-jokes are nice examples here.  Jargon can provide precision for those who understand, just as it confuses those who do not.  An in-joke makes you feel left out if you are on the outside of it, but can be a lovely expression of friendship if you understand it.  Most importantly though, in-jokes and jargon are good examples of types of boundaries we can put up without realising it.

Keeping to communities we already know is tempting. It’s sometimes said that the various long tails of online communication allow us to surround ourselves with people who agree with us: self-curated bubbles of cozy agreement. This can be useful. It lets us network with others who have similar tastes, interests or worries, allowing us to share skills and information, to build movements (see also my London Science Online talk on ‘the science vote’). Interaction in niche groups can also be rather limiting. In his great book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins compares this to ‘choosing to live in red states and blue states’ (yep, sorry, another geographical metaphor, Jenkins, 2006: 249). Jenkins goes on to argue that we tend to join web communities for recreational interests rather than political ones. So, by hanging out at, say, a knitting blog, you might engage in discussion with someone of a different political viewpoint from yourself, a different religious one, or cultural, generational, professional.

We might argue that the science is one of these recreational interests, and so still suffers from people opting in or out of it. I honestly don’t know how this effects science blog readership. I suspect it varies. I’d like to stress, however, that one of the great things about Gieryn’s cartographic approach is that it helps us view this thing we call ‘science’ as rather heterogeneous in itself. Science isn’t a bubble, it’s a field teeming with diversity.

Moreover, science in all its diversity looks at a load of different topics, in a load of different ways, for a load of different reasons, many of which will have some non-scientific link to peoples lives (or at least non-obviously-scientific link). Another term I can offer you from sociology/ history of science: ‘boundary objects’. This refers to items of shared space that several different groups can – simultaneously – use, spend time with, be attracted to, and find meaning in. Locating this sort of shared space is something I suspect a lot of science writers aim for, or at least science writers who want to draw new audiences into science. Star and Greisemer, who’s paper on Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology I take this term from, note the active work that often has to go into making something shareable. For example, they suggest libraries as an example of spaces built to deal with problems of heterogeneity: ordered piles, indexed in a standardized fashion so that people with a host of agendas can use or borrow from the pile for their own purposes without having to negotiate differences in purpose. Boundary objects do not always simply offer themselves nakedly, and I think that’s an important point.

Star and Greisemer also reflect on the problems of working in shared spaces. They refer to people who have feet in two cultures and stress that managing multiple identities can be volatile and confusing. Such people may resolve these problems by denying one side of their identity, oscillating between worlds, or by forming a new social world composed of others like themselves (Star & Giesemer, 1989: 411-412). None of this is easy.

Boundaries are an unavoidable part of social life. They are useful, and they are limiting. We need to be as clever as possible about them: to keep an open and enquiring mind about who might be on the other side of a boundary; to be careful of accidentally building them and inadvertently seeming standoffish or snobby. We all have spam filters, and we’ve all nearly missed some great email or blog comment because of them. The trick is to keep an eye on them.

Science, public engagement and ‘The Big Society’

Keep Science Public

Yesterday, Jack Stilgoe posted a piece about science and the Big Society on the Royal Society’s science policy blog. He starts by playing with the juxtaposition of the Big Society with the idea of “Big Science”:

Scientific research is increasingly specialised, a trend accelerated by the emergence of Big Science – an expensive, equipment-heavy team sport – in the second half of the 20th century.  This means it’s pretty hard to democratise much scientific research. Big Society science probably won’t therefore involve street gene-sequencing parties or the Women’s Institute designing a particle accelerator.

Stilgoe then goes on to stress the ways in which this specialised world of contemporary science can still accommodate, indeed be helped by, some collaboration with non-experts, celebrating a range of projects which might broadly be called ‘Citizen Science’.

Sadly, such enthusiasm for public engagement doesn’t seem to extend to the Royal Society’s website: their blogs don’t support readers’ comments. Much as I do love the piece of French social theory Stilgoe links to in pace of a platform for debate, I think there are some more pragmatic points to raise, ones that are worth making if we are to develop thought on this important issue.

So here’s my two-pennyworth, which I offer alongside an open comment thread for others to add their own ideas, arguments and examples.

Stilgoe mentions Galaxy Zoo. As does everyone who talks about this issue. As they should. It’s great. It lets professional researchers tap into the energy and enthusiasm  of amateurs. Everyone learns, everyone has fun, everyone is involved. There is now a whole Zooniverse of  projects, everyone wants in on the game. But there are problems. As I’ve argued before, Galaxy Zoo is relatively unusual. Astronomy is an area many people enjoy as a hobby, with a long history of amateur/ professional collaboration. The specific tasks Galaxy Zoo involves happen to be relatively easy to pick up.

Most science isn’t like this. This doesn’t damper the brilliance of Galaxy Zoo at all (I’m a big fan), but it does say something about it’s reach and potential role as poster boy for Big Society Science.

Stilgoe also mentions Steven Epstein’s excellent book about the ways in which AIDS patients in the 1980s managed to take some control of the research agenda, becoming experts themselves in the process. Again, this is an example that’s always wheeled out in debates like this. Like Galaxy Zoo, I can see why; it is brilliant. But also like Galaxy Zoo, I wonder if it’s cited so often because there aren’t many other good examples?

It’s important to remember issues of social and cultural capital here. Or, more bluntly: class. Not all patients groups are as well positioned as these AIDS activists. If I remember rightly, this is a point mentioned by Steven Epstein. There’s a history of networks which these AIDS activists drew on which not all patient groups have. Further, just as astronomy is an area people care about, so is medicine. Not all research has the same emotional drive.

And what’s missing from Stilgoe’s list? Well, we could talk about science blogging, science-themed political activism (e.g. over homeopathy, or funding, as in photo above), the role of charities or, more abstractly, whether citizen science projects allow professionals to take advantage of hobbyists. Maybe these are things for a comments thread.

Instead, I want to talk about Opal Air Laboratories (OPAL), a network of community ecology projects. Like Galaxy Zoo, OPAL involves science which has a history of amateur involvement, and has been designed to include tasks people can readily do without much training (go on, send them your photos of worms). What makes OPAL so fascinating though, is that it’s also an example of a research project which has receiving from the National Lottery. Why? Because it turns out that public engagement with science can help foster a sense of social inclusion as well as good science. When I spoke to OPAL’s director last year, she told me they run projects getting ex-offenders involved in ecological research, helping them feel connected to their natural and social surroundings in the process. In some respects, such work could be described as science as a form of social work (apparently the Eden Project run similar projects with Willesden schoolkids). It’s worth noting that the more developed aspects of OPAL spends time training it’s volunteers. Yes, you get work from people for free, but you also have to invest heavily in order to do this. This kind of community engagement is hard work in itself, relying on the fulltime expertise of people who do this for a living (and, I’d personally say, should maybe be given more stable “public” funding than Lottery grants).

None of this is to necessarily disagree with Jack’s initial post, I just think it’s worth having a longer conversation about some of the details and problems involved and drawing on the ideas and knowledge of others.

So please, do take some time to comment.

EDIT: spinning off from this post (or rather, the comment thread) I wrote a piece on science and “the big society” for Research Fortnight. It’s paywalled, but most UK universities have institutional access.

Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

Taking science journalism “upstream”

row of boatsToday I spoke at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel session curated by David Dobbs and also featuring Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism. This is the typed-up version of my talk, along with links and extra bits of context.

As the academic on the panel (not to mention the only one that isn’t, shhhh, in any way a journalist) I thought I’d focus on an idea: an invite to take things “upstream”.

That probably sounds dirtier than it should.

The term “upstream” is (a) a metaphor and (b) jargon. Both of which I apologise for. The concept has been incredibly influential in the engagement end of science communication work. Science communicators use it all the time, they even tell each other off when they’re “not upstream enough”. But has never really carried through to journalism.

In essence, it’s an argument for showing more of science in the making, not just waiting for publication of “ready-made” peer-reviewed papers.

Imagine science as a river.  Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting. Let’s not get too carried away with this metaphor though, or we’ll just end up with boring stories about scientists going rafting (it also relies on what is, arguably, an over-linear model of science, but that’s a whole other argument).

The term “upstream engagement” has various antecedents, but really stems from a (2004) report from think-tank Demos, See Through Science, by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis. They argued that science communication initiatives had become over-dominated by questions of risk, which they felt, was too late in the process. The March 2006 POST note (pdf) provides a good example of the difference between early and late (upstream and downstream) engagement, drawing on reactions to GMOs. It refers to a 1994 consensus conference funded by the BBSRC and held at the Science Museum anticipated issues surrounding genetic modification (GM) of plants and involved publics at an early stage. In comparison, they argue that the 2003 GM Nation project, although government-funded and promised to take up recommendations, it was “too little, too late” (POST, 2006: 2). GM Nation asked people to respond to what had been delivered to them, whereas the 1994 event had given people access and, simply, insight into what might be delivered.

Wilsdon and Willis were heavily influenced by Stephen Hilgartner’s (2000) book about US science policy, Science on Stage, and echoing this they have a lot of fun with theatrical metaphors:

The task of upstream engagement is to remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden. In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004: 24)

I should note, the idea has its critics, e.g. Dick Taverne’s letter to Nature or, somewhat more thoughtfully, William Cullerne Bown. Still, these are exceptions. Listening to some of David Willetts’ statements on public engagement, I suspect he is a fan of working upstream (or is at least has been briefed by someone who read that POSTnote).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that journalists haven’t really taken it up though. The idea of upstream engagement is to fix problems in the relationships between science and society. The government like this, clearly, so write POSTnotes and fund things like ScienceWise, but it’s not the business of journalism to deal with it. They just want to sell papers. They have their own rules to play with (c.f. Andy Williams’ reference to news values in the recent Times Higher piece on science writing).

But I think upstream science journalism offers something sell-able. It’s based on theatre after all. It swaps that cliché of “scientists have found” for “scientists are doing”. It focuses on “scientists find interesting”, “scientists wonder” or “scientists are excited by”. Actually, I’d hope it looses the sloppy generalisation of “scientists” and instead introduce researchers with rather less anonymity. That’s part of the point. It lets the audience look science right in the eye and see it in all its glory (beauty and wonder; warts and all).

I suspect people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it ista Evan).  Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry. But upstream science journalism can be done responsibly, and without tripping over patents or embargoes. Remember, the focus is more on the people, their ideas, worries and enthusiasms, not the results. Moreover, I  still want a place for “downstream” science reporting. The publication of a major paper is a news event worth covering. I’m not dismissing a creative, articulate, probing and context-bringing write-up of peer-reviewed research in the slightest. Done well, it can be a beautiful and important thing. There is also, I think, a lot to be said for what we might call “really, really far downstream” reporting: maybe we need more about what happens to science after publication. Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society (yes, that is a Latour reference and yes I have read Amsterdamska’s review).

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

I don’t think this call to move upstream offers something drastically new. I use it as a nice phrase to, I hope, encourage and focus attention in this area. I think it is already being done, and new media is making more feasible (and showing there is a market for). As Vincent Kiernan argued during last year’s WCSJ’s fight over embargoes, new media mitigates against what John Rennie called “Big paper of the week syndrome”, the reliance on cycles of “pseudo-news” about what happens to have been published in one of the larger journals (see also the embargowatch blog for fascinating tracking of these tensions).

My favourite example has to be this video of the ICHEP conference hosted on the Guardian. I’ve also noticed recently that Times health correspondent David Rose uses twitter not just to post links to finished pieces, but as news comes in. It’s also worth mentioning the interactive way Mark Henderson has used his twitter account in conjunction with the Times’ Eureka blog (especially during the election), as well as others who favour the “DVD extras” approach to blogging alongside traditional journalism. Further, the Guardian’s science storytracker gives insight into the evolution of a story, and it was interesting to see the the Guardian’s health team use their Datastore during the death rates investigation. In terms of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism, I think Gaia Vince’s blog is a nice example.

This death rates points us towards a possible pitfall: Ben Goldacre’s criticism of their stats, and more to the point, that such open data needs to come with “open methodology” too. As I said at the time, however, precisely because it is so complex, an approach which is iteratively discursive (rather than momentarily confrontational) is perhaps the most likely to succeed. There are also, in the business of journalism, matters of competition to be remembered: the worry of being scooped (perhaps beautifully demonstrated by this story). As with be careful of embargoes and patents (competition issues in science), I think it’s a matter of being careful, being clever and being imaginative. Maybe the tweeting of political journalists during the election is a nice example?

This sort of upstream work can be pretty niche. A nice example of that being exchange between Evan Harris and Jon Butterworth over “if” you wanted to know about supersymmetry. But that’s why it can work online, because you can find those niche markets (e.g. first comment on Jon’s post). We might similarly argue that it doesn’t provide news, but again the web might be of here, as people come to content at different times and through a range of routes: I think blogging has already started to blur boundaries between feature and news piece when it comes to science writing.

The niche point does, however, point us towards the best argument against upstream science journalism: that it’d would be boring. Maybe that scientists go rafting feature was a bit dull. But people write dull pieces based on research papers all the time. If a science journalist thinks scientists at work is boring, then I think they are in the wrong job. Similarly, if they think the ideas and knowledge of their readers is boring, I suspect they’re increasingly find they are in the wrong job.

I don’t think moving science journalism upstream will solve all its problems. Neither do I think the concept offers something drastically new: it’s already happening. Still, thinking about upstream as a one of the many possible new forms for science journalism might focus attention in a fruitful direction. Or maybe it’s a ridiculous mis-application of what is a slightly aging and rather self-indulgent idea in the first place. Tell me your thoughts.

EDIT (September 2010): You can see a video of the session.

EDIT (March 2011): I have been amazed by the way the online science writing community have taken to this – e.g. a mention in David Rowan’s speech on How to Save Science Journalism and, especially, the the newly launched PLoS blog Science Upstream.

Should fans get a life? (or tell us a lot about public engagement?)

I have a guest post over at Matthew Nisbet’s new Age of Engagement.

The blog had featured a post about modern fan culture and marketing. I couldn’t help but fold this into some thoughts on science communication. Can an awareness of tensions and connections between fan culture and entertainment marketing have applications for work aiming to connect members of “the public” with scientific ideas and communities? I left a comment and Nisbet asked me to expand as a post.

It’s something I’ve thought about a bit over the last few years. I discussed the notion of a rhetorical reference to a community of readers in my PhD, and discussed audience-to-audience interaction with students when teaching courses on science online and science’s interactions with fiction. I also wrote an article a couple of years back about branding and children’s literature which involved some study of social marketing. I should admit the blogpost was slightly hastily put together though, grabbing through some disparate ideas on something that there probably should be more research into. There’s a load more I could say around the topic, I’m still working out how to put them together, and what would make the right case study. I’d love to hear further thoughts (or examples, from science and/ or fan culture), either here of over at the Big Think post itself.

Nisbet’s been blogging about science communication for a while. His ‘Framing Science’ at scienceblogs is mentioned in my list of blog recommendations for prospective students last month). His new blog promises to maintain this interest, but take a broader look at communication, culture and public affairs, as well as reinvigorate his interest in the relationship between science and religion (see his introductory post for more details).

He’s been setting up in his new home with a prestigious quantity of posts for the start of term. I’ve already been interested to read pieces reflecting upon the NYTimes article about peer review, and (re)framings of nuclear power. The Big Think site it is hosted on is sometimes known as the YouTube for ideas, and there are a fair number of videos in blogposts (which I’d say is a good thing, something and plan to experiment with myself in the next year).

So, go read my ramblings on fan culture and public engagement, let me know if you have any thoughts, and do add Nisbet’s new blog to your list of regular reads.

The Myth of Scientific Literacy

EDIT: I recorded an updated and audio version of this for the BBC (July 2012).

Every now and again, the term “scientific literacy” gets wheeled out and I roll my eyes. This post is an attempt to explain why.

The argument for greater scientific literacy is that to meaningfully participate, appreciate and even survive our modern lives, we all need certain knowledge and skills about science and technology. Ok. But what will this look like exactly, how will you know what we all need to know in advance and how on earth do you expect to get people trained up? These are serious problems.

Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:

  • Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
  • Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
  • Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured.

The problem with the first approach is what IB Cohen, writing in the 1950s, called “The fallacy of miscellaneous information”: that a set of often unrelated nuggets of information pulled from the vast wealth of human knowledge is likely to be useful in everyday life (or that you’ll remember it when it happens to be needed). That’s not to say that these bits of knowledge aren’t useful on occasion. Indeed, I remember my undergraduate science communication tutor telling us about how she drowned a spider in the toilet with a bit of basic knowledge of lipids and surface tension. However, it’s unrealistic to list all the things a modern member of society might need to know at some point in their life, get everyone to learn them off in advance and then wash our hands of the whole business. This is especially problematic when it comes to science, as such information has the capacity to change (or at least develop). Instead, we all need access to useful information when it is needed. Note: by “access” I include tools and cultural inclination to go about finding and making meaning from such information (posting a document online doesn’t count).

The second of Durant’s approaches to scientific literacy might make more sense then, but there are problems here too. Firstly, there is what Cohen dubs “The fallacy of critical thinking”. Science isn’t necessarily a transferable skill. This is easily demonstrated by examining carefully the lives of scientists outside of the laboratory (or, to put it another way: “yeah, cos scientists are all sooo well organised outside of work, living super-rational evidence-based lives, all the time”). It would be lovely if we could provide a formula for well-lived lives, but people just aren’t that consistent.

There is also the matter of whether you believe science works to a singular “scientific method”. That in reality science isn’t “a” way of thinking, but many; enacted under quite local conditions (which are influenced by ideas like those of Popper, Bacon et al, but “method” is only part of it). This is largely the thinking behind the third approach to scientific literacy: “how science really works”. I have a problem with this too, one it shares with all three: it’s too didactic. It replaces an idea that the public are deficit in scientific information with an idea that they are deficit in sociology of science. It is just as unrealistic (if not more so).

One of the neatest arguments against calls for scientific literacy is Jon Turney’s 2003 response to Susan Greenfield. It has a particularly good ending:

Work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it, and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please.

This echos a key problem many people have with the scientific literacy approach. It is too top-down. You might be able to talk about scientific literacy in an educational context (i.e. for children in compulsory education), but adults will simply feel patronised and so won’t listen.

I’d also argue that a scientific literacy approach tackles the problem the wrong way around. It would be lovely if we could live in a world where “everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute”, but you can’t prepare for scientific controversies like that. Do we want to view each science story through the lens of older ones (cough, Simon Jenkins). Maybe prevention would be better than a cure, but I don’t think it is possible in this context; medical metaphors perhaps being as inappropriate here as “literacy”. Rather, let’s provide structures where non-experts can learn about science as and when they become important to them. As Turney says, “Invite them”.

Although I like Turney’s piece a lot, I do also understand the frustration people feel when they see what they feel is a lack of scientific training. I was prompted to write this blogpost after recent comments made by Julian Huppert; that MPs to be required to take a crash course in basic scientific techniques (see also Liberal Conspiracy piece in support). Do we really want elected politicians to “become as scientifically literate as they please”? We might argue that MPs, like schoolkids, should just be told to turn up and listen. But as anyone who has worked in a school will tell you, compulsory attendance is only part of the battle.

Mark Henderson tweeted that he agreed with Huppert and the libcon piece that understanding methods of science would help politics. That it is the least understood thing about science outside science: most non-science graduates think of as body of facts, not as a way of thinking. Fair enough. But you have to believe these ideas, as well as understand them. This is one of the reasons why the UK science communication industry dropped the word “understanding” a while back, and why it is important to avoid confusing “understanding” with “appreciating” (or “knowing” with “liking”, or “trusting” for that matter). Identifying what you think people should know about and actually getting them to (a) listen, (b) believe you and (c) apply it, are entirely different matters. As Huppert told the Independent, political leaders simply pay “lip service” to the importance of scientific proof. I worry that greater training in scientific literacy could simply provide a more extensive rhetoric. You want their hearts, not just their minds (or simply vocabulary).

I’d love it if there was a simple course we could send our elected officials on which would guarantee future science policy would be reliably high quality. Being educated in science (or even “about science”) isn’t going to do it. It’s social connections that will. We need to keep our elected officials honest, constantly check they are applying the evidence we want them to, in the ways we want them to. And if the scientific community want to be listened to, they need to work to build connections. Get political and scientific communities overlapping, embed scientists in policy institutions (and vice versa), get MP’s constituents onside to help foster the sorts of public pressure you want to see: build trust so scientists become people MPs want to be briefed by.

This, for me, is the true message of “understanding how science really works”. That science is not only done by, but advocated by networks of human beings. Rather than training people up in the sociology of science (cough, Harry Collins), we should go out and do some “applied sociology”: build those networks through action and debate.

This is just a brief sketch of the basic problems with scientific literacy (yes, this was the brief version). If you are interested in more, I can recommend the following. They are all a bit old. It is an old argument.

  • Bauer, Martin, Nick Allum & Steve Miller (2007) What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 79-95.
  • Durant, Jon (1993) What is scientific literacy? in Jon Durant and Jane Gregory (eds) Science and Culture in Europe (Science Museum: London).
  • Einsiedel, Edna (2005) Editorial: Of Publics and Science, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 16(1): 5-6.
  • Gregory, Jane & Steve Miller (1998) Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (New York & London: Plenum). See p. 16-17 for IB Cohen’s “fallacies”.
  • Millar, Robin (1996) Towards a science curriculum for public understanding, School Science Review, vol.77 no.280: 7-18.

A quick note on jargon

I posted a note on science communication jargon on posterous last week (mainly a four page jargon buster I came across…). I still think posterous is the best place for it, but I’ll link to it here, and also re-post a bit of my commentary.

There are a lot of advantages in the professionalisation of Science Communication. I like some of its jargon. I use a lot of it myself, several times a day. Some reflect names of institutions we mention so often an acronym is almost like a nickname (SOB, Society of Biology), some reflect ideas and historical shifts in approach the field has decided to take (e.g. a move from PUS to PD*).

Still, it’s also necessary to keep it open, and involve the range of other experts who do active science communication work (e.g. professional scientists who also do a fair bit of public communications). Sophia Collins has already made this point very clearly though, go read her post on the need for such a mix. So, we might joke that a field such as science communication relies on so much jargon, but the more serious point is that science communicators need to be careful because the field contains way more than professionals.

Moreover, I suspect that if we forced ourselves to rely on what we mean, rather than buzzwords we think other members of our gang will understand, we’d communicate within the profession more effectively too. Just think of “engagement”; an incredibly broad collection of different understandings (including, I’d argue, misunderstandings). Some call this an “umbrella term”, other’s might say “woolly” or even “meaningless in its multitude of meanings”.

Sometimes jargon can get in the way of precision as much as it allows it.

* Brief translation: the shift from talking down to a public perceived as ignorant (a need for PUS = Public Understanding of Science) and towards more interactive, dialogue-based models of communication which listen as well as educate (PD = Public Dialogue).