Science promotion
Science promotion

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Science promotion

1.2 Defining science promotion

A basic definition of science promotion would be useful here: in the context of this course it means putting forward the benefits of science by motivating and engaging non-scientists. You may be aware of the sociological argument that science is open to social influences and constraints, and it is worth bearing this in mind when thinking about whether the benefits of science are necessarily the same for everyone. Likewise, you will need to remember that the public is not a homogeneous mass with uniform interests and understandings. In which case, you might ask if the argument made in the House of Lords’ report is achievable – in other words, whether ‘the whole of society’ can take part in debates and be meaningfully engaged with science.

Moreover, perhaps we should consider whether the government has a particular agenda on public involvement in contentious scientific issues, and whether any political motives define priorities. Is greater effort put into promoting ‘science in general’ rather than some controversial ‘science in particular’? (For example, might science promotion events explain plant genetics, but overlook the debate about whether genetically modified crops should be designed specifically for alleviating food shortages in developing countries?) Or is it possible that the scientific community commands exceptional influence over the science promotion agenda, with events thus representing their professional priorities rather than the ethos of public engagement and debate?

Gregory and Miller (1998) in Science in Public warn that the outcomes of science promotion are not necessarily straightforward:

Governments, the scientific community, and business interests have all offered the public new opportunities to participate in scientific events, be they celebratory festivals or critical enquiries into matters of public policy. [but] ... These tensions are not always apparent: the agendas at work are often tacit, and the public’s perceptions of and reactions to them are difficult to assess.

(Gregory and Miller, 1998, p. 220)

Of course, this was written before 2000, when the House of Lords report was published and, by the end of this free course, you should be able to evaluate the validity of these quotes in the light of recent changes.

There are a number of ways to try and address these issues. The analytical method used in this course is to try and separate ‘institutional’ and ‘independent’ ways of promoting science, to see what aspects of science they emphasise and what techniques they use.

  • Events are categorised as institutional if they need some kind of support from an established institution in order to exist – support usually in the form of financial, human and technical resources.

  • Events categorised as independent are those where public engagement is on a non-institutional, autonomous basis – a do-it-yourself approach, so to speak.

This distinction is made to try and identify the roles played by ‘top-down’ political and institutional impetus versus those played by individual and ‘bottom-up’ impetus. It might be concluded that any such impetus, and the vested interests that may accompany it, makes either no difference or perhaps some difference to what is being promoted. However, you should remember two important caveats:

  1. These categories are just for the purpose of this course and should not be taken as rigid or undisputed divisions (an overlap could occur, for example, when amateur ‘independent’ astronomers contribute to local events as part of National Astronomy Week).

  2. No matter how well an event is organised using institutional resources, its reception cannot be easily predicted. Participants might accept the message that is being delivered, or might disagree strongly, and/or be apathetic to certain aspects whilst being enthusiastic about others.

We hope this analysis will help you see if institutional support is necessary for science promotion to be successful – however ‘success’ may be defined – or whether people can engage just as well with science through other, more self-determined means. Hence, the next two sections look at the merits and drawbacks of two very different styles of science promotion opportunities for adults.

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