Science communication course seeks to interrogate, not celebrate

Existing model of outreach that seeks to inform an ‘ignorant’ public is broken, say experts

February 16, 2017
Visitors to the World Science Festival Street Fair peddle a square wheeled tricycle
Source: Alamy
Feeling stuck? Science festivals, which have mushroomed, are often celebratory rather than encouraging critical analysis

A new generation of science communicators will be taught to challenge and interrogate rather than merely “celebrate” science amid some warning signs of falling public trust in the endeavour.

The University of Salford is launching what it claims is a radically different MSc programme to counter a model of science communication that has been “stuck for quite a few years”, explained Andy Miah, inaugural chair in science communication and future media.

Many of those who communicate science still see their job as informing an “otherwise ignorant public”, he argued. Science festivals, which have proliferated in the UK, are often simply celebratory rather than encouraging a critical analysis of the impact of science, he said.

“There’s a certain value in celebrating what science does,” he acknowledged. But the role of science communication “should be to serve society, not to serve science”.

The new course, which will start in September with an initial cohort of 20 to 30 students, is part of a wider reappraisal of how science is communicated in an era of “fake news”, vaccine scares and climate change scepticism.

major report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, released last year, concluded that although many people understood science, they still do not agree with or act consistently with the scientific evidence, meaning that simply feeding the public more information may not be the answer.

“The most widely held, and simplest, model of what audiences need from science communication – what is known as the ‘deficit model’ – is wrong,” it said. 

This rethink is set against a background of falling trust in research from some quarters, and the election of a US president with seemingly little reverence for evidence. In the US, conservative trust in science has been in decline since at least the 1990s, while in the UK academics were widely distrusted by Leave voters in last year’s European Union referendum (although academics are still rated higher on the issue of trust than all other professional groups).

Professor Miah thinks that science events should aim to create a “deeper memory” for participants than they do currently.

Last October, he organised an event to explore the science of falling in love, where instead of being presented with information, audience members took part in an experiment where participants were told to ask each other 36 questions that a psychological study has claimed can create intimacy between strangers. “By the end of the night, everyone had gotten closer to each other,” he said.

Professor Miah said that he believed the creative arts should be more involved in science communication, as artists can ask provocative questions about the acceptable ends of scientific progress.

Alba, a glow-in-the-dark genetically modified rabbit created by the artist Eduardo Kac at the turn of the millennium to explore the ethics of biotechnology, is a good example of this, Professor Miah said. “We want to disrupt the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] agenda and bring in a more creative agenda,” he explained.

The new MSc will also train students how to get their message across digitally, without requiring the traditional media, for example by explaining research directly on Facebook, he said. “If the BBC isn’t interested in a documentary [about a university’s new research], then you can make one yourself,” he said.

Finally, scientists need to engage more deeply with the public when they do their research, he argued. Public input is already a requirement for some funding bodies such as the National Institute for Health Research, but questions have been raised about how genuine public input actually is. “The majority of scientists who are pushing the limits [of science]…aren’t involved with the public in any meaningful way,” said Professor Miah.


Print headline: Is it time to move up a gear in science communication?

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