Communicating science in the 'digital age'

These are exciting times to be communicating science as developments in technology, increasing de-regulation and the legacy of previous high-profile science-based issues combine to produce new opportunities for dialogue, engagement and deliberation. In this article - orginally published in 2005 - we explore how the ‘digital age’ is changing the relationship between science and society.

By: Dr Richard Holliman (Faculty of Science)

  • Duration 15 mins
  • Updated Thursday 1st December 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Media Studies
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A digitally-equipped editing suite Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC

The role of new technologies
New media, such as those you can access through home computers, mobile phones and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), are providing opportunities for a wide range of citizens to engage with new developments in science. These media also provide opportunities for citizens to learn about science-based issues, such as near-Earth objects, for example by accessing the Internet. Indeed, anyone who has checked the Internet before visiting their GP, or bought therapeutic treatments over the web is an example of someone who is motivated to engage with biomedical knowledge that is relevant to their lives. This has given rise to the term ‘expert patients’; those who choose to learn about illness and diseases, often through searching the Internet.

It is not surprising that these new media are of particular interest to young people as they are more likely to become ‘early adopters’, those who enthusiastically embrace new technologies as they enter the marketplace. For example, a recent Guardian/ICM survey showed that of those people between 14 and 21 who were online, over a third had produced their own web site or web log (or blog as it is more commonly known).

A blog is a form of online interactive diary. Produced and updated regularly by anyone who has access to a PC and the skills necessary to use blogging software, this form of communication allows, indeed encourages, feedback and comments from its audience. In this sense, blog postings move from being strictly linear – the audience receiving information, as is the case when you read a book - to being more interactive and dynamic. In effect, the communication becomes a dialogue between users, as they exchange information that is relevant and useful to the activity/phenomena they are discussing. To be successful, of course, requires commitment by the users (the producer of the blog and the readership). Indeed, most blogs fail either because the producer of the blog fails to provide sufficient, interesting material and/or the readers stop posting sufficient, interesting comments.

There are numerous examples of blogs currently online – you may even have your own blog or one that you regularly visit and send comments to – and they are produced for a range of purposes. For example, they can be produced by large organisations as a way of engaging their audience, as was the case with the recent BBC series of Rough Science. Alternatively, they can be used to enhance teaching and extend the boundaries of the classroom or seminar, as seen in this blog about medical humanities. More commonly, however, they are produced to promote and discuss the interests of an individual, who, in effect, creates a small online community, as seen in this blog discussing astronomy.

It could be argued that blogs have blurred the boundaries of expertise, in these cases about who is defined as a scientist, a medical humanities specialist, or a professional astronomer. It is just as likely, however, that blogs have made this already blurred distinction more visible. Indeed, amateur ‘citizen experts’, so-called ‘pro-ams’, have been enthusing about their particular interests for many years, just not on the Internet. Now new technologies allow them to communicate more effectively and visibly, for example through online conferences, discussion lists and email, debating and consulting about useful knowledge and creating new networks of information exchange, potentially across the globe.

The influence of de-regulation
Technology then has an important role to play in developing the ways in which we communicate. But it would be wrong to assume that technology is the only factor in providing new opportunities for dialogue, engagement and deliberation about science.

De-regulation, increasing the influence of free market economics in the broadcast media marketplace, has also played an important role. In practice de-regulation is likely to have two key effects on traditional broadcast media such as television and radio:

  1. as we move into the multi-channel on-demand ‘digital age’, audiences are likely to fragment;
  2. the influence of public sector broadcasting may diminish.

Taken together this means that science will have to compete to maintain its current position in broadcast schedules and in viewers’ minds.

At the same time, the increasing take-up of digital TV offers opportunities for real-time audience engagement and deliberation as you watch programmes – you may have even pressed that red button yourself – providing viewers with chances to engage with complex science-based issues. A recent example of this was the joint venture between two popular BBC TV medical dramas, resulting in Casualty @ Holby City. Introduced by Professor Robert Winston, this programme offered viewers the chance to vote by phone on which of two endings of the episode they wished to view. Viewers could also access further information about organ donation at the end of the programme by pressing the red button, via the BBC web site or by phoning an information helpline. With ethical issues revisited throughout the programme, the storyline featured two patients who were desperately ill and in need of organ transplants, but there was only one donor. In effect, viewers were invited to choose which patient received the organs of another patient who had recently died. Of course, one of the key aims of the programme was to highlight the difficult decisions that medical professionals make due to the lack of suitable organ donors. Hence, viewers were asked not only to deliberate by choosing who should receive the donated organs in this fictional scenario, but also to be part of the solution by volunteering to become organ donors themselves through the associated online DoNation campaign; an example of citizen engagement that could save people’s lives.

National newspapers too are responding to the competitive media marketplace and developments in technology, undergoing significant changes in recent years, not least in terms of the move by The Times and The Independent to compact formats and, more recently, the introduction of the Berliner Guardian. More prosaically, you may have noticed the introduction of email addresses of journalists and links to web sites at the bottom of newspaper articles in recent years. These changes coincided with the expansion of the Internet and the introduction of online versions of newspapers. For example, initially introduced for the 1997 general election, the online edition of the Guardian proved so popular that it was retained and expanded. Now one of the most popular online newspapers in the world Guardian Unlimited regularly includes science coverage. The site also runs online chats, again in real-time where readers get to ask questions of experts, for example with well-known scientists such as Professor Robert Winston. In this way, media professionals and the invited experts have an opportunity to see what is important to those willing and motivated enough to post a question; an example of engagement that provides feedback to scientists and media professionals.

A digitally-equipped editing suite Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC

The legacy of high-profile science-based issues
So far we have briefly considered how developments in technology and the influencing of de-regulation are providing new opportunities for citizens to engage with science. There is another important factor to consider; the legacy of previous high-profile science-based issues, in particular the way they were managed and portrayed in media reports. For example, the emerging scientific understanding surrounding BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), a cattle disease, and vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob), a disease in humans.

Science communication, particularly in the form of news media reporting, played an important role in informing members of the public about developments in the BSE/vCJD episode, a situation that is the case for many science-based issues. Indeed, research has consistently shown that once citizens have left formal education media reports are a key informant about new developments in science. It should come as no surprise then that sales of beef reduced significantly in the immediate aftermath of media reports in March 1996 that suggested a link between BSE and vCJD. (Indeed, recent media reports about bird flu have seen similar reductions in sales of chicken.) But were there longer term effects?

Research suggests that the legacy of the BSE/vCJD episode can be characterised in part by a loss of trust in scientists working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now subsumed into Defra) and the food industry. Indeed, one of the main recommendations of the BSE Inquiry was for more openness and transparency in dealing with issues of food safety as a way of increasing levels of trust. As a result the Food Standards Agency, set up in the aftermath of the BSE/vCJD episode, places great emphasis on these ideals. In practice this involves a number of pragmatic measures, for example, providing clearer labelling of foods with the aim of improving consumer choice.

Alongside these calls for greater openness and transparency there have also been calls for the introduction of dialogue and consultation exercises, as a way of engaging citizens in decision making processes. Science in Context considers two examples, the GM Nation? debate and the more recent NanoJury event. Taken together, these examples invite questions about when to conduct deliberative exercises: upstream, when citizens have the greatest chance to influence the aims and objectives of future scientific research, or further downstream, when stakeholders should have a greater awareness of some of the benefits, risks and ethical issues that may be associated with a new area of research and development.

The challenge
Overall, these developments - in technology, increased de-regulation and the legacy of high-profile science-based issues - suggest that the interface between science and society could become more dynamic and engaged, more blurred in terms of the distinction between experts and non-experts, but also more visible. Of course, citizens have always had local expertise that is of value to science and scientific information has influenced the ways we live our lives. Now, however, scientists can exchange their ‘ivory towers’ for online forums facilitating dialogue, engagement and deliberation and pro-ams can extend local networks to engage at a global level.

Does all this sound to good to be true? Certainly, new technologies can extend the opportunities for dialogue and engagement, but this is not without its challenges. For example, the move towards on-demand multi-channel electronic media, such as radio and TV, is likely to provide opportunities for more interactive science-based communication, but with smaller audiences. As a result citizens will have greater choice and motivating citizens to consume science will become an ever important factor. Those with an interest in engaging citizens with science will need to compete with activities other than science; not an easy task.

In addition, ensuring that citizens have access to new technologies and the ability to navigate through them are very real concerns; if you cannot access and use new technologies, as many people in the developing world cannot, then you will be excluded from participating. The danger here is that the gap between information-rich societies, such as the UK (where access and ICT literacy skills are far from universal), and information-poor societies will be maintained and even widened. Deliberating about global issues, such as Climate Change will therefore require methods that engage all citizens and not just those with access to new technologies.

Of course, it is also important to note that to be adopted new technologies need to provide obvious benefits to the users. For citizens in Bangladesh whose water supplies are contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic, for example, online consultation exercises will look like an unnecessary luxury. These citizens are looking for more immediate pragmatic solutions to this challenge, for example, by painting ‘safe’ wells green and ‘dangerous’ ones red. In this way, new technologies cannot be seen as a panacea for effective science communication.

This article describes some of the opportunities and challenges for those wishing to communicate science using new technologies. Science in Context (S250) will help you to investigate some of these issues in the context of seven scientific topics. At the same time, it will help you to further develop the information literacy skills that are so important when navigating your way through science communicated in the ‘digital age’.

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