Improving scientific communication

January 28, 2002

Strasbourg, 25 January 2002

Strasbourg, 25.01.2002 - The Parliamentary Assembly closed its winter session with the examination of a report on scientific communication presented by Claude Birraux (France, EPP/CD) on behalf of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education.

In its resolution, the Assembly advocates concrete measures to enable scientists and science journalists to fulfil better their role of accurately conveying scientific information.

Among the priorities are the training of scientists in communication and journalists in science, the institutionalisation of regular contacts between the two groups and the setting up of a technical platform on the Internet to host scientific archives and exchange fora.

The Adopted Text
Provisional edition
Scientific communication
Resolution 13 (2002)[1]

1. Many scientific topics are increasingly becoming the focus of public and political attention. Politicians are having to take decisions on scientific matters which have far-reaching implications for citizens’ everyday lives. Citizens are asking themselves questions, and they are also questioning the politicians who represent them. Politicians, who are at the interface between the public and the scientific world, must understand science in order to ensure that their decisions are as informed as possible and that they can subsequently explain their choices to the general public.

2. Scientific communication has become a prime strategic tool because it provides information for both the public and the policy-makers on developments in such sensitive areas as nuclear energy, pollution, bioethics and genetic engineering, the new information and communication technologies and the exploration of space. It can however be exploited either to promote a laboratory or to attract funding.

3. The Assembly has already addressed in Resolution 1083 (1996) the question of parliamentary assessment of scientific and technological choices.

4. If the public are inadequately, wrongly or incompletely informed, this may have adverse effects on science policy decisions, as a body of opinion that has (rightly or wrongly) been formed on a particular subject will influence policy-makers, who are obliged to take account of public opinion or face losing out in the elections. Journalists have the right to question information given by scientists or companies and make independent investigation.

5. Likewise the public has a right to complete and accurate information. It needs therefore to be regularly informed on scientific and technological developments. This helps to ensure a reasonable position on any research and development.

6. Although conferences, lectures, exhibitions and other events organised directly or indirectly by the scientific community have a part to play, the bulk of scientific information reaches the public through the media.

7. Scientific journalists generally have sound scientific or technical training. This is not true of non-specialist journalists who deal occasionally with scientific matters. Any inaccuracy or misinterpretation in the information provided (resulting from the journalist’s inability to explain the subject or quite simply from a quest for sensationalism) will in all likelihood mislead, excite or alarm the public.

8. The scientific community and the media still fail to understand each other. Some scientists have a tendency to use journalists as mere intermediaries in order to publicise their work, whereas journalists criticise scientists for not communicating in language that people can understand.

9. The Assembly invites the governments of member states, scientists and the media to promote appropriate means of communicating scientific information at both national and European level, in order to ensure openess, transparency and balance, in particular:

a. by prompting universities and scientific societies to develop communication training for scientists, on the model of the United Kingdom, where the British Psychological Society and the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science are actively involved in such work;

b. by fostering the development and even the institutionalisation of regular contacts between science journalists and scientific circles, so that the two communities can get to know each other better;

c. by encouraging the training of journalists in scientific communication in particular by the setting-up in all journalism schools of special sections to train science journalists;

d. by supporting the setting-up and the work of national associations of science journalists and their involvement in the work of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations;

e. by providing public support for the specialist science press and encouraging mergers between publications in order to improve their quality, extend their readerships and enhance their reputations;

f. by developing a permanent technical platform on the Internet on the model of the American “Public Library of Science”, hosting scientific archives and fora for exchanges on various research topics;

g. by encouraging representatives of the scientific community and the media to get together to organise events likely to be of interest to the general public in certain branches of science, such as laboratory “open days”, “science weeks” and thematic evenings on television.

___________________
[1]. Assembly debate on 25 January 2002 (8th Sitting) (see Doc. 9300, report of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education, rapporteur: Mr Birraux).

Text adopted by the Assembly on 25 January 2002 (8th Sitting).

Explanatory memorandum by Mr Birraux

Introduction

1. Scientific communication is a subject which comprises three main strands: information for policy-makers (see Resolution 1083 (1996) on parliaments and the assessment of scientific and technological choices), communication between scientists and information for the general public.

2. Many scientific topics are increasingly becoming the focus of public and political attention. Politicians are having to take decisions on scientific matters which have far-reaching implications for citizens’ everyday lives. Citizens are asking themselves questions, and they are also questioning the politicians who represent them. Politicians, who are at the interface between the public and the scientific world, must understand science in order to ensure that their decisions are as informed as possible and that they can subsequently explain their choices to the general public.

3. Scientific communication has become a prime strategic tool because it provides information for both the public and the policy-makers on developments in such sensitive areas as nuclear energy, pollution, bioethics and genetic engineering, the new information and communication technologies and the exploration of space.

4. Communication among scientists working in the same or in different fields primarily involves scientific publications. Nowadays, if researchers want the rest of the scientific community to recognise their work they must publish articles in respected scientific reviews. They supply scientific magazines (usually free of charge) with articles presenting the results of their work, and in return the publications provide them with peer recognition and reputation. This enables the researchers to go on to apply for eminent university posts or to prestigious research laboratories.

5. The relatively small circulation of scientific publications means that some highly-reputed reviews go out of print, as happened with the French “Journal de Mathématiques”. Such publications should be encouraged to merge in order to secure a wider audience as well as public grants.

6. Despite, or possibly because of, the extremely rapid developments in science, the public are distrustful of scientists. They have become aware that scientists do not speak with one voice when it comes to answering a series of questions of public concern (in connection with global warming, mad cow disease, AIDS, foot and mouth disease, nuclear waste and genetically modified organisms) and have been faced with scandals in which scientists are indirectly involved (for example the contaminated blood scandal and the use of radioactive weapons).

7. Public opinion can have a substantial effect on policy decisions (for instance, those concerning research funding) in certain branches of science. It influences policy-makers, who are obliged to take account of trends in public opinion or face losing out in elections. If European public opinion is somewhat distrustful of science, the result will be (through the intermediary of policy-makers) reduced budgetary support for science in Europe.

8. Once they have left school, the public obtain most of their knowledge nowadays through the mass media. Despite the fact that the book “A Brief History of Time” by the famous physicist Stephen Hawking sold over 10 million copies and was translated into more than 20 languages, it is an exception. Science journalists therefore shoulder a growing responsibility.

9. Science journalists often contribute, as well, to the flow of information between different branches of scientific research, by bridging the gap between researchers, who cannot keep abreast of all the latest developments in disciplines other than their own. Scientists themselves may be in the position of ordinary members of the public when faced with information on a scientific subject in an area in which they are not specialists.

The role of the mass media in informing the general public about science

10. Science journalists working for the mass media generally obtain their information from five sources:

- The first is press releases and official announcements issued to editorial teams by the information departments of research bodies (by post, fax or e-mail). Science journalists are regularly snowed under by such information, which arrives in huge quantities every day. Statistically, the Financial Times finds only one-tenth of this information of interest, and only one-hundredth is used for a new science article in the newspaper.

- The second source is journalists’ personal contacts with research laboratories’ public relations officers. Through such contacts they can obtain information that can be turned into leading articles. It is fairly unusual for this to happen, however, because information that is considered sensational at source (and which the laboratories ask to have published on the front page of the newspaper, in exchange for an exclusivity contract) is so specialised or so boring that none of the regular readers of a newspaper for the general public would appreciate it.

- The third source of information is direct contact with scientists at their place of work. This very often produces interesting articles.

- The fourth source is information taken from another non-specialist newspaper or magazine or from a radio or television broadcast. A scientific subject can thus be elaborated on in stages by various media.

- The fifth source is scientific publications. They provide the most reliable information, since the articles published are always revised by the authors’ peers before publication.

11. A press release on which there is an embargo is perhaps the most efficient means of disseminating scientific news as widely but also as accurately as possible. A few days before they publish an article likely to be of great interest to the public, scientific journals distribute summaries to science journalists on major newspapers, which do not publish the information until the embargo has been lifted. This practice is very useful for science journalists working for publications intended for the general public, for it enables them to write articles on the basis of accurate information that has not been distorted. Of course, it sometimes happens that there are leaks when the information is sensational, as was the case with the announcement of the cloning of the sheep Dolly and of the discovery of fossilised microbes on a meteorite.

12. A sizeable number of editors do not always consider it worthwhile extending the coverage given to scientific news. Yet studies (Pierre Fayard, 1991, quoted by Bertrand Labasse, 1999) have clearly shown that science sells. Several daily papers that have introduced science supplements have seen their sales increase markedly on the day when the supplements come out.

13. The danger that newspapers for the general public, in search of sensationalism, will publish information that has not been checked (it is said that the press finds the cure for cancer two or three times a year) is paralleled by the danger that researchers who believe they have made such important discoveries that the whole world must be told of them immediately will summon the press to announce a discovery before it has been checked by peers. If the scientists in question are highly reputed, the press tends to publish the information straight away. The best known example is that of the announcement, in 1999, by two American researchers that they had succeeded in carrying out controlled nuclear fusion in a glass vessel. The media gave huge coverage to the event until it emerged that no one had ever been able to reproduce the experiment.

14. Another, much more common danger is that newspapers will mislead their readers by providing inaccurate or tendentious information on such scientific issues as cloning, genetically modified organisms, mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease. On a training course for election candidates, we were told that 80% of French people thought that autogestion (self-management) had something to do with cars - which shows how difficult it is to communicate using scientific terms. It is therefore very easy for readers of the non-specialist press to form a misguided opinion or even succumb to mass hysteria, for only a tiny proportion of them have the capacity to make a critical analysis of the information provided on scientific subjects and assess its credibility.

15. It seems clear that there is a need for better training on both sides (scientists and journalists). It can still be said that the scientific community and the media do not understand one another. Efforts to improve public understanding of science often come up against horrendous problems. Science journalists should put across science as part of general culture and not as a separate subject.

16. The declaration of the Second World Conference of Science Journalists, held in Budapest in July 1999 in connection with the Unesco World Conference on Science, stressed that it was vitally important, for democracy and the world as a whole, for scientific journalism to bridge the gap between the world of science and the everyday lives of ordinary people.

17. Journalists must rise above the simplistic idea that scientists could easily abandon their jargon and make their work more comprehensible if they would only take the trouble to do so, for the serious constraints of scientific accuracy preclude such an approach. There is a limit to the constraints that the media can impose on scientists by asking them to make their knowledge accessible to the general public. Robert Cailliau, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, used to be irritated by journalists who insisted that he explain it in a couple of minutes.

18. Furthermore, scientists should not accept the idea that the media form a homogeneous community in search of spectacular information and concerned solely to increase their readership as much as possible. Science journalists are usually well aware of the problems of informing people about science, but they are also familiar with journalistic constraints (in terms of readership or audience, time, space, etc), which scientists tend to overlook as they are unfamiliar with them. In the United Kingdom there are media fellowship schemes that enable scientists to spend a month or two on the editorial team of a newspaper or television channel to discover how it operates. In Australia, two-day workshops for journalists and scientists provide a means of “educating” the two communities together.

19. On a large scale, the best strategy is training in scientific communication. Europe lags far behind the United States here. The United Kingdom should serve as a model for the other Council of Europe countries: scientists are offered training modules both in universities and by scientific associations such as the British Psychological Society, and training grants are provided by the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

20. Examples of training for science journalists can be found in several European countries and should be followed throughout Europe. France set up the Ecole supérieure de journalisme in Lille in 1993; the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany and Umeå University in Sweden have had science journalism courses since 1995. The European Initiative for Communicators of Science has run a scheme for several years to familiarise science journalists with scientific laboratory work. The Max Planck Institute receives ten or so European journalists each year to introduce them to laboratory work. Again in Germany, a system similar to the media fellowship scheme allows professional journalists to find out about scientific practice in research laboratories.

21. Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction author and an important author of popular science books, when asked in what scientific field he was an expert, explained that the only real expertise he had was that of appearing to be an expert in many areas of science. One of the duties of a science journalist would appear to be just that.

22. The European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations can play a leading role in disseminating accurate scientific information, provided that training for science journalists on a European and international scale is given tangible support by the authorities in all countries.

The Internet

23. An increasingly important means of disseminating scientific information to the public is the Internet, which allows interested people to obtain a multitude of information on scientific subjects, explained at a wide variety of levels by scientists, individuals, research laboratories, museums, universities, and so on.

24. The difficulty in obtaining recent and, in particular, reliable information about the findings of European research teams can be partly offset by developing the European internet service AlphaGalileo, which is supported by the Euroscience Foundation, CERN and STEMPRA (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine Public Relations Association). AlphaGalileo is a reference site for science journalists, on which European research bodies can post press releases directly on the work of their researchers. It provides journalists with exceptionally good access to topical information since, as a proper on-line press centre, the service caters for all providers and users of scientific information in Europe. It provides a data base with links to websites on the sciences, engineering and technology where additional information may be obtained.

25. The main question mark hanging over scientific information on the Internet is its reliability. Information published in specialist journals is revised by the authors’ peers. This check can be avoided by virtue of the Internet, by scientists confident of their findings, who opt to disseminate information quickly. Cases similar to that of the media coverage given to a successful cold fusion experiment, referred to above, are therefore likely to become more common in future. The risk exists even for the AlphaGalileo site, which does not use the system of revision by peers and where anyone posting information carries sole responsibility for its content.

26. One Internet initiative aimed at on-line scientific archiving and creating a genuine network knowledge base is the American project “Public Library of Science”. This facility gives researchers the option of contributing free of charge only to those scientific reviews that agree to make their work available, also free of charge, to the public on their website, six months after paper publication of the said work. The project is aimed at redefining the relationship between scientific researchers and science publishers, while protecting the interests of both: researchers will continue to enjoy the prestige of publishing their work in well-known reviews, while also eventually reaching the general public, and publishers should not really lose out financially since the research results are not supposed to be available on Internet until six months after their exclusive publication.

Conclusion

. The Council of Europe has always been aware of the seriousness of the problem of enabling the general public to understand science. In 1968 it published a study by Jean Pradal on the methods used in member states of the Council for Cultural Co-operation to popularise science in writing. The Parliamentary Assembly has adopted reports on scientific and technological co-operation with central and eastern European countries (Resolution 1075 (1996)), on basic education on science and technology (Recommendation 1379 (1998)), on the role of women in the field of science and technology (Recommendation 1435 (1999) and Resolution 1207 (1999)) and on media education (Recommendation 1466 (2000)).

28. The mass media are the most effective means of disseminating scientific information to the public. Such initiatives as open days, science festivals and science weeks (some countries, especially in western Europe, have started organising such festivals every year, with the support of the European Commission) help improve public awareness of science issues. The Internet, which was originally intended as a means of communication among scientists, is playing an increasingly important role in informing both the scientific community and the general public. If the public are to be properly informed and if their support for research and development and for science in general as a driving force for social progress is to be assured, one of the prime current concerns of policy-makers must be to improve scientific communication at all levels of society and, in particular, the popularisation of science.

Press Contact
Estelle Steiner, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Communication Unit
Tel. +33 3 88 41 33 35 - Fax. +33 3 90 21 41 34
E-mail: estelle.steiner@coe.int

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments