Science suffers from smiling suits in studios

October 25, 1996

One year on from the Wolfendale Report on Public Understanding of Science a number of initiatives have been enacted to encourage scientists to leave the safety of their research labs and explain science to the masses. But are these initiatives likely to encourage scientists to treat science communication as an important part of their job? On the contrary, current efforts are misguided and ill-informed. Worse still, they threaten to trivialise a potentially important emerging discipline.

Two initiatives now in place can be traced directly to the Wolfendale Report, published one year ago this month. The research councils now actively encourage scientists to become involved in PUS activities by offering grant incentives and running media-training courses. The Office of Science and Technology for its part has published a booklet entitled Going Public, An Introduction to Communicating Science, Engineering and Technology. This "best practice'' guide aims to equip scientists with the skills needed to venture beyond the lab and communicate their work to a wider audience.

The underlying assumption is that scientists themselves are best able to increase the public's awareness and understanding of science. Scientists, in the Government's view, should write more articles for New Scientist and the Guardian; scientists should appear more on radio and TV; scientists should prepare press releases on their latest results. And, with the help of the OST's glossy booklet, scientists can readily achieve these laudable aims.

This thinking betrays a breathtaking arrogance deeply rooted in academia. It arises from the commonly-held belief that the only activity with any degree of intellectual difficulty is research. Teaching, in this view, is second nature to most academics. Activities such as writing popular science articles and giving radio presentations are therefore trivial. As Sir Arnold Wolfendale said at this year's British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, all scientists can write, and if they can't, "they jolly well should be able to". Given this widespread literary genius among scientists it follows that every scientist should be encouraged to become involved. Hence the OST's logic in producing a glossy "how to'' guide for every scientist in the land.

Would that the OST would listen to Sir Ron Oxburgh who, speaking at the same BA meeting, pointed out that the current pressure on every academic to do research whether they want to do so and whether they are any good at it, "is a waste of time, money and trees''. Current initiatives to press every academic to become involved in public understanding of science, whether they want to do so and whether they are any good at it, guarantee at best mediocrity, at worst disaster.

However, given that some scientists will have both the desire and the talent, are current initiatives likely to encourage them to become involved in PUS activities? Unfortunately not. The nature of the promotion system within universities means that PUS activities are unlikely to improve a scientist's promotion prospects. Like science itself, university promotion is a communal activity. Advancement comes about by persuading your peers that your activities are of sufficient merit. Most academics believe that the activities which deserve reward are research, teaching and administration - in that order. On this scale Public Understanding of Science does not even register. University scientists today often get scant reward for explaining science to their students never mind to the general public. External influences such as those currently being implemented are therefore unlikely to be effective. What is needed is the training of professional science communicators who will act as intermediaries between scientists and their various publics. Many within the emerging science communication community recognise this fact and are concentrating debate on the qualities which such intermediaries should possess.

Scientists undoubtedly have a role to play in training science communicators. But such training should involve much more than scientific fact. Just as important are an appreciation of the process of science, the psychology of communication, the skills of written and oral presentation, the social and cultural nature of science, and much else yet to be determined.

Professional science communicators with these wide-ranging skills are already being trained in courses such as the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial and that run jointly by Queen's University and Dublin City University. A start has been made and a new discipline is emerging. The best thing government could do to ensure this area's continued growth would be to stop trivialising it by producing glossy booklets advising scientists on how best to dress for television.

Ian Hughes is joint coordinator of the MSc in science communications jointly run by Dublin City University and the Queen's University of Belfast.

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