Getting the scientific message out: loud and clear

June 12, 2003

Brussels, 11 Jun 2003

Communicating science to the public is absolutely vital, but not a substitute for improving scientific education, experts warn. If the media's job is to report issues of interest to society, the solution is to make science more interesting.

Often the first hurdle scientists and researchers encounter is getting their findings published in specialised journals. Communicating this information to a broader public takes a back seat. Scientific publications generally have a limited readership that understand the science involved. The public at large depends on the mass media to reinterpret the scientific breakthroughs into more accessible language.

"As scientific research becomes ever more specialised it is becoming more and more difficult to exchange ideas across scientific disciplines," said Enric Banda, secretary-general of the European Science Foundation (ESF) in their policy briefing 'Science communication in Europe', published in March this year. At the same time, "Scientists [increasingly] need to … develop abilities to communicate their ideas and discoveries not only with each other but also with policy-makers at all levels and with the public at large," he added.

But achieving this goal warrants significant improvements in the communication channels between scientists and the media, implying a two-way exchange. Scientists can work on countering their aloof image and look into ways of translating heavy scientific findings into laymen's terms via well-structured press information. Meanwhile, journalists can work on accurately reporting the research findings, avoiding sensational coverage that runs the risk of inciting public backlashes, such as that over genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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Today, in what ESF calls "the battle for public attention", policy and public opinion are influenced by the media gaze, emphasising the importance of getting the message right, whether it be a policy statement to the press about new pharmaceutical regulations or, indeed, the release of new research data.

Some scientists still think scientific information should be kept within the scientific community, lest it be mistreated or misrepresented. Most countries devote too few resources to science communication, according to ESF. "Even the media industries underestimate the potential of good science stories … We simply lack a science culture in Europe," noted ESF's policy briefing.

In the briefing, a group of professional science communicators set down some general European-level policy recommendations aimed at bringing scientists, policy-makers and the general public "closer together on a basis of trust and understanding". These are summarised below.

Although the briefing praises the Commission's promotion strategy for scientific education and culture, it states a more appropriate budget (in line with USA and Japan) for 'Science and Society' activities in its Sixth Framework Programme for research would be 1% rather than the current level of 0.5%. A European scientific press agency is welcomed to stimulate dialogue between the scientific community and the media, but it should take into consideration the existing services such as Alphagalileo and the European Union of Science Journalists' Association. Television is a vital source of information for most Europeans: thus, a specialised science channel could be a valuable resource. The briefing suggests a collaborative effort between the European Broadcasting Union, ESF and the Commission could bridge the cultural differences between EU countries. Targeted calls for proposals for the creation, translation and dissemination of quality media products, including TV programmes, books, newspapers, websites and radio. National science weeks and festivals need to be better promoted across the EU, with a possible European-level convention along the lines of the AAAS' yearly event. Continual monitoring of the activities for raising public awareness of science and innovation would deepen understanding of the relationship between science and society.

Source: ESF


More information on this subject:

European Science Foundation

AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science)

Event: Scientific Advice, Crisis Management and the Media

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