Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics
Postgraduate study skills in science, technology or mathematics

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3 An introduction to communicating science

3.1 Introduction

In 2000, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology produced an influential report that highlighted the complex and increasingly problematic relationship between contemporary science and society, particularly in the field of biotechnology (House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2000). The report argued that many of these concerns were seen by the public to be the result of a perceived lack of transparency in the relationship between science, industry, public policy and the public as consumers. High-profile issues, such as the BSE/vCJD episode, were also seen as responsible for reducing levels of trust in scientific expertise. It was argued that effective science communication could be a key factor in reducing tensions between science and society by increasing levels of democracy through greater dialogue and consultation (House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2000). Of course, the picture is not all doom and gloom. Contemporary science is now more visible and easily accessible to the public than ever before, and science forms a core part of the National Curriculum in the UK. With calls for upstream engagement though (e.g. see Wilsdon and Willis (2004)), it remains to be seen whether the greater calls for dialogue and consultation will affect the progress of scientific investigations in the coming years.

As practising scientists, you will communicate science within this climate of dialogue between the scientific community and wider society. Indeed, many funding bodies now require scientists to communicate science to the public as a mandatory condition, expecting that, at a minimum, a certain percentage of an overall grant would be spent on such activities. In this respect, the requirement to communicate science is a response to the use of public money to fund scientific investigations; the public having a right to know how their taxes have been spent. Furthermore, training programmes for research students regularly include activities designed to promote good practice in science communication. But there are more pragmatic and even altruistic reasons for communicating science. In the first instance, you will have learnt science from those with prior knowledge and experience of scientific knowledge and practices. Without these individuals to inspire and guide your development as science students you would have struggled to learn science in the way that you have. As research scientists you have the opportunity to inspire others to become scientists, or to become interested in scientific issues. Of course, not everyone will want to become a scientist. This does not mean that these individuals are not interested in science, however. Recent events, such as Science Year and the eclipse of the Sun in the southwest of England, illustrate the popularity of scientific issues. In this sense, you have the opportunity to communicate science, both as a scientist and as a citizen, by listening to the views of wider society and producing scientific information to inform these debates.

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