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

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Optional reading

If you are interested in investigating the issues raised by the House of Lords Select Committee report in more detail, you will find a copy of the full report on the web at:

The following references also discuss issues related to key findings from this report: Irwin and Michael (2003, particularly pp. 19–40), Miller (2001) and Gibbons (1999).

This overall picture places demands on you as a communicator, both in producing and receiving scientific information through a wide range of media. This section has been written as an introduction to some of these challenges. It will address the following questions:

  • What is science communication?

  • Why is science communication an important issue for scientists to address?

  • How can an understanding of the processes of communication inform communicative practices?

  • How does the current context for communicating science relate to calls for greater dialogue and consultation between science and society?

In addressing these questions you will be asked to consider extracts from articles and to conduct a series of short activities. (A number of optional readings have also been identified. You might choose to access these readings for interest, or if you have additional study time at your disposal.) By completing these readings and the activities it is hoped that you will develop a more sophisticated understanding of the complexities involved in the process of communicating science that will further inform your practice as science communicators. You will then be asked to demonstrate your understanding of these issues through contributions to your Portfolio.

Scientific knowledge is very visible in contemporary society, as a wide range of scientific and science-related issues are subjected to considerable public and academic debate. Often, these debates refer, either implicitly or explicitly, to discussions of technology and/or mathematics. As a result, scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge circulates not only within the academic disciplines where this knowledge was produced, e.g. in peer-reviewed journal publications and academic conferences, but also within wider society. For example, newspapers, magazines, television, radio, school classrooms, books, the internet, advertisements and museums all represent scientific and science-related issues. Examples that have generated public debate in recent years include:

  1. Cloning experiments, notably the experiment that produced Dolly the sheep and, more recently, experiments to clone stem cells for therapeutic purposes.

  2. Global climate change and the role of humans in managing the environment.

  3. Developments in nanotechnology and the prospects for using these techniques in the production of medicines and materials.

  4. The search for extraterrestrial life within the Solar System and the identification of Earth-like planets beyond this.

  5. The prospects for introducing genetically modified (GM) organisms into the food chain and the wider environment.

Activity 4

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Take a few moments to consider each of these examples in turn, and then try to answer the following questions. Have you heard of example 1 (then 2, 3, 4, 5) prior to beginning your study of this course? If so, where did you first hear of this example? Did you actively seek further information about any of these examples? If so, where did you look for this information? Finally, are any of the examples related to the subject that you are currently studying and did this influence how you reacted to the issue in question? Can you think of other high-profile examples of science communication in recent years that are not included in this list?

Each of the five examples listed above has generated a considerable amount of science communication in recent years, and this makes them high-profile examples, both within the scientific community and within wider society. As such, it is likely that you will have heard of all five of them. It is also likely that, unless you are studying issues related to these subjects, the first time you heard of these issues would have been through news media coverage, e.g. a television news bulletin, radio broadcast or newspaper article; research suggests that these are important media for disseminating information about newly published science (e.g. see Holliman (2004)). Given the competitive nature of the media marketplace in the UK, these issues can be considered to be of great importance because that they generated such extensive coverage.

It is more difficult to judge whether you will have sought further information about any of the five examples. Some of you may have been more interested in one example, compared with another, and you may have investigated a range of sources regarding this topic, including books, web-based information and university courses that address this example. Indeed, previous media reporting may even have indirectly influenced your current choice of research topic and how you subsequently react to communication about your subject area. For example, you may be more likely to check newspaper articles to see how your current (or previous) research topic has been reported. Subsequently, you may feel so strongly about this reporting that you contact the media outlet, e.g. by writing a letter to the editor. In this sense you are receiving science communication, reacting to it in a variety of ways, some of which may lead you to produce a response.

By contrast, you may have investigated all five of these topics in your spare time, e.g. through a regular subscription to a popular science magazine such as New Scientist or Scientific American. Alternatively, you may find yourself so busy with your studies that you become focused on the academic literature and avoid other scientific issues when you are not studying, e.g. in favour of other entertainment or leisure activities. As a final example, you may not be interested in any of these topics and, therefore, you may have avoided any further investigations. In part, this might be because of the sheer amount of scientific information that there is available through the news media, radio programmes, the internet, etc. Indeed, even if you did consume information about these issues, you may have switched channels before the end of the television news bulletin or radio broadcast, or turned the page of the newspaper prior to completing your reading of the article, or chosen not to click on one hyperlink on the internet in favour of another. In this sense, it could be argued that individuals are likely to have different levels of knowledge and experience of scientific information, in part because of their different responses to the issue under consideration.

This activity has very briefly asked you to reflect on how you consume science communication. Two key points are suggested as a result of this exercise. First, that consumption of science communication is complex and indeterminate. We cannot assume that simply because science is communicated that the audience will consume these messages. Furthermore, the producers cannot know with any confidence how their science communication will be interpreted and contextualised. Second, unless you are studying a subject in great depth, your knowledge of that subject is likely to be patchy and incomplete and affected by your interest in the subject matter. In this way the notion of scientific expertise is dynamic, in that a biochemist may be an expert in that field, but have limited, if any, detailed knowledge of astrophysics; see Fuller (1997) for a discussion. These issues have important implications for science communication because, to be effective in communicating a message, the communicator requires some understanding of the prior knowledge, experience, attitudes and beliefs of the receivers. In other words, even though a group of individuals may have different experiences of science, for science communication to be effective requires a level of shared understanding between the producer and receiver. Thus, to become a professional scientist requires, among other knowledge, experiences, attitudes and beliefs, that a student of science becomes aware of scientific practices and conventions relating to science communication. By contrast, for a scientist to communicate effectively with non-experts there is need to be aware of the different practices and conventions influencing those individuals, whilst having an awareness and respect for any different attitudes and beliefs. To do this effectively requires exchanges of information between experts, and between experts and non-experts. In other words, the communicators learn from each other. However, it does not follow that the communicators will always be in agreement.

You may be asking why these five examples were chosen over others. After all, these examples represent only a tiny fraction of the scientific, technical or mathematical work currently being conducted and communicated. Other high-profile scientific issues that have received similar levels of exposure that you may have listed include the BSE/vCJD episode, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and debates about sustainable energy. The five examples were chosen, in part, because they represent different scientific disciplines that are studied at the Open University (OU), such as biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. They also draw on the work of technologists and mathematicians. Hence, a key aim in selecting the examples was that they worked for the first activity you have just completed. But they were also chosen because they are useful vehicles to investigate science communication in a range of different contexts, which is an important theme for this section.

Of course, this section is, in itself, a partial introduction to issues relevant to contemporary science communication, and it is hoped that you will continue to reflect on your experiences as a science communicator as your career develops. If you are interested in considering these issues in more detail, there are a number of optional readings identified throughout, similar to the ones that you encountered at the start of this section. Alternatively, you may wish to consider studying the OU's MSc in Science courses S804 Communicating science and S802 Science and the public.

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