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

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3.2 What is communication?

The previous section introduced you to a number of issues where scientific, technological and mathematical knowledge played a key role in generating high-profile contemporary examples of science communication. One of the key issues that links these examples is that they have all be the subject of a considerable number of communications in a wide range of contexts, e.g. within (in the form of journal articles) and outside (in the form of news media reporting) the scientific community. The science communication related to each example was produced by a range of social actors, including scientists and representatives of scientific institutions, media professionals, non-governmental organisations and members of the public. As such, these examples represent interesting opportunities to investigate how science is communicated both within and outside the scientific community, focusing, in particular, on the role of the scientist and scientific institutions. But what do we mean by communication? Fiske argues that:

Communication is one of those activities that everyone recognises, but few can define satisfactorily. Communication is talking to one another, it is television, it is spreading information, it is our hairstyle, it is literary criticism: the list is endless.

(Fiske, 1993, p. 1)

In this quotation, Fiske makes two points relevant to defining communication. First, he notes that communication is an everyday activity. Indeed, without communication we would not be able to operate in society and society would cease to function. We all communicate, often in complex ways, as you have just illustrated by reading this sentence, in that to do so required an understanding of the English language, the purposes of an academic teaching text, and a motivation to complete this aspect of the course. And you probably achieved this without consciously considering these aspects of the communicative process. Second, Fiske argues that communication is very difficult to ‘define satisfactorily’. In this instance he lists a number of activities that could be defined as communication, but these are not directly associated with science communication. Therefore, it is worth considering some examples that do relate to science communication.

Activity 5

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Take a few moments to re-read the quotation by Fiske. You should then jot down two ways that you have experienced science communication in the last month, noting how you participated in these communicative acts. For example, what role did you play in these examples? Were you actively involved in producing scientific information? Were you receiving scientific information? How many people were involved in the communicative act?

There are many ways that you will have experienced science communication, both as a practising scientist and as a citizen. The following five points list examples that Anna, a 22-year-old postgraduate research student, has experienced in the last month:

  1. In preparation for an experiment, Anna searched for and read a series of journal articles that were relevant to her scientific research, accessing online versions of these articles and then printing them out in hard copy so that she could make notes on the manuscripts.

  2. Having recently completed a series of experiments, Anna accessed an online discussion list relevant to her research and contributed to this ongoing debate. The discussion list includes participants from 25 countries, mainly practising scientists from North America and Europe. Following the posting of her message she received several replies, both direct to her personal mailbox and posted on the discussion list.

  3. In preparation for a conference presentation, Anna participated in a supervision meeting with her two supervisors. Prior to the meeting, Anna sent both her supervisors a draft of the paper she was intending to present and an outline of her presentation.

  4. As a member of the department, Anna attended a recent seminar organised by her department. The speaker was a professor presenting work that was relevant, in part, to Anna's research. During the question and answer session that followed the presentation Anna chose not to ask a question.

  5. As part of the Science Faculty, Anna is invited to participate in an outreach and engagement activity in a local school. First, she conducted a series of simple experiments in the laboratory. She then presented a short talk on what she did as a scientist. Finally, she participated in a question and answer session with the students.

You will now have prepared your list of two examples of science communication. Were they similar to any of those listed above? It is unlikely that your examples will match these exactly. However, it is likely that you will come across situations like these during the course of your research.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the questions posed and the answers provided in the examples. First, we can see that Anna has taken on a number of roles in these examples, e.g. as a research student, and as a member of her department. These different roles overlap, of course. The important thing to consider here, however, is that, even if she is not aware of it, these roles can both motivate and constrain how she communicates. For example, as a research student Anna will be motivated to conduct her research so that she can complete her studies. If she is studying for a PhD though, she will need to fulfil certain criteria to be awarded the degree, not least producing a written thesis in a certain format, and successfully completing a viva voce examination. During her studies, Anna will learn the key skills necessary to become a research scientist capable of independent research, including skills in science communication. Now compare this with the final example. In this instance, Anna has been invited to represent the Science Faculty in a local school. As such, she is likely to be seen as an expert scientist by the students and teachers, with all the skills necessary to conduct the experiments, present her talk and provide instant answers to the schoolchildren's questions. And this is likely to be the same whether it is her first or fifty-first outreach and engagement activity. But that is not all. She is also an ambassador for the Science Faculty, for her academic subject, and for science more generally. She therefore needs to consider carefully how she communicates with the students and teachers so that she can represent a positive image of a young research scientist. If you participate in a similar activity, you may find this quite a daunting and demanding task at first, particularly when faced with a classroom full of students who require an immediate answer to questions that may, or may not, be in your sphere of expertise. However, with practice, these sessions can be great fun.

We can see from these examples that Anna will communicate science as both a student and an expert, and that the context for the communication and social role that she plays as a science communicator are both sources of motivation and constraint.

In terms of the second and third examples we can see that Anna was mainly involved in the active communication of science, both as a producer and receiver of information. For example, Anna has actively contributed as a producer and a receiver in the online discussion forum and the supervision meeting. In the first instance, she produced and sent her message. She then received several responses, both direct to her mailbox and to the wider discussion list. In the production of her responses to these messages she needed to consider the content of those messages, as well as whether she should to respond to individual messages, the discussion forum, or both. One of the key differences between this and the other examples is that the communication is asynchronous; in effect, Anna could also choose on what time-scale she wanted to respond. This allows for a more measured response, facilitating reference to other works, whether online (e.g. as hyperlinks) or as hard copy (e.g. as references). This situation is different from the supervision meeting, where Anna prepared information for discussion, or the outreach and engagement activity, where she responds to questions as soon as they are asked. In these cases the communication is direct and face to face. Therefore, it is more immediate and dynamic, with individuals acting as both producers and receivers of information. By contrast, in the fourth example, Anna is in a more passive role during the presentation, mainly receiving information from the professor, but also from other members of the department as she witnessed the question and answer session that followed. However, she could have chosen to ask a question following the presentation. If this had been the case then she would also have produced science communication and, hopefully, received an appropriate answer. This may have enabled her to feel confident to introduce herself to the professor following the presentation.

Finally, we can see that these examples involve different numbers of participants, ranging from Anna working alone on her research, to the supervision team, to a classroom of schoolchildren, to an email discussion list. The number of individuals involved in the communicative act will, therefore, differ greatly, in part because of the medium for the communication. Fiske defines three types of media for communicating messages. They are:

  • Presentational media, which includes the voice, the face, the body, and spoken words and gestures. These media are particularly important in face-to- face communications, but they can also be represented in other communications, e.g. see below.

  • Representational media, which includes books, paintings, photographs, writing, architecture, gardens, films and, more recently, web-based information.

  • Mechanical media, which include telephones, radios, televisions, fax machines, and computer networks. Mechanical media are the transmitters of the two other media.

(Adapted from Fiske, 1993)

Fiske's categories provide a useful delineation for analysing media for communication. His categorisation facilitates discussion of how we communicate science through these media. For example, in terms of presentational media, if you were attending a job interview, you would make an effort to present yourself appropriately to the interview: initially, in terms of the clothes you wear, and subsequently as an attentive candidate during the interview, e.g. in terms of your body language. And you would expect the same of your interviewers, in order to be confident that the position was one that you would be interested in accepting, if offered. Communication in this sense can be very dynamic. For example, if you had carefully prepared for the interview but found that your interview panel appeared disinterested, this may influence how you continue to communicate; you may even decide that you wish to end the interview prematurely. In this sense, your behaviour will have been directly influenced by both your and others’ use of presentational media.

This issue of presentational media becomes more complex when we consider how presentational media can be represented, because representational media can move the discussion from face-to-face communication to a distinction between where messages are produced and where they are received, and by whom. In this sense, as producers of communication, the author of a book is rarely present when their book is being read and the newscaster cannot judge the audience reaction to their news bulletin. In keeping with these ideas, it has been argued that the relationship between production and reception of representational media is ‘characterised by distinctive kind of indeterminacy’ (Thompson, 1999, p. 17, emphasis in original) in that the producers of mass communication rarely have direct contact with their audience and the audience are rarely in direct contact with the producers. Both are therefore deprived of the continuous feedback, e.g. from visual cues, that is apparent in face-to-face communication. Predominantly then, this form of mass communication is one way: from the producers to the receivers. And yet, for the communication to be effective, the producer must be aware of some of the ways in which their communication will be received, as well as having some idea of their audience's prior knowledge, experience, attitudes and beliefs with regard to the subject to be communicated. Those involved in the production of representational media, therefore, need to consider their audience by attempting to resolve the ongoing tension between the requirements for accuracy in their communications alongside the desire to be both attractive and comprehensible to consumers. In these ways, the elements of production, content and reception are inextricably linked. You may, therefore, find it useful to think of the relationship between production, content and reception as a continuously moving circuit, involving a wide range of social actors, representing a diverse set of issues.

This has important implications for science communicators, not least for those concerned with involving the public in dialogue and consultation about scientific issues, because to reach large audiences requires ‘mass’ communication or ‘mass’ media, such as television and radio programmes. And mass media are received by mass audiences. McQuail defines a mass audience as:

[… ] a product of the new conditions of modern industrial urban society, especially its largeness of scale, anonymity and rootlessness. It is typically a very large aggregate of detached individuals, anonymous to each other, but with their attention converging on some object of interest that is outside their immediate personal environment or control.

(McQuail, 1997, p. 7)

According to McQuail's definition, a mass audience is heterogeneous, making active choices in terms of what to consume. Furthermore, research has shown that mass audiences will not interpret messages in the same way, drawing on a range of resources and prior knowledge and experience:

[… ] people do not passively absorb everything that is beamed from their television set. Instead they interpret and contextualise. Public views are not formed from thin air. Equally, they are not simply dictated by the media or by ministerial pronouncements or by lay ‘perspectives’ or ‘cultures’. Judgements are made according to information available from the media, education, friends and family and other sources and evaluated against previous experience and information.

(Miller, 1999, p. 218)

In this way, members of the audience use their prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes and beliefs to make sense of mass media (Holliman, 2004), as well as other forms of communication. This is an important issue for science communicators to consider, because it follows that audience interpretations may be different from those intended by the producers. Audience members may choose to accept, challenge, ignore, or even reject messages from scientists, regardless of how well they are communicated. They may also fully understand a message, but choose to act contrary to the advice given. In this way, parents may choose to inoculate their child with a series of single vaccines even if they have understood advice that an alternative combined vaccine provides equivalent protection. In addition, audience members may also choose not to consume media reporting of biology, but retain an interest in physics, in much the same way that you may have responded to the initial activity in this section. As a science communicator, then, you should not expect every communication you make to be understood in the way that you intended, or for everyone to choose to consume your communication. And if your messages are understood you should not expect those affected to act always according to your advice. In the same way, you are unlikely to always interpret communications from others exactly as they had expected. Being aware of the sophisticated processes of interpretation and contextualisation may help, however, when you consider how best to communicate with a particular audience.

Finally, we can talk of mechanical media. These are the artefacts that communicate messages, whether this is by mobile phone or television, etc. The important thing to consider here is the role of technology and how this influences cultures of communication.

When Fiske wrote his book in 1993, the World Wide Web, mobile phones and digital technologies were not included in the descriptions of mechanical media. In the contemporary context these would be key aspects of mechanical media, in part because of developments in information and communications technology (ICT). These media have changed the nature of communication for those who can access ICT, by introducing dynamic interactivity where producers and receivers exchange messages from any computer that is connected to the internet and the World Wide Web. (There are important issues of equity to consider when discussing the impact of new technologies. Use of these communications requires regular access to the mechanical media that produce, deliver and receive messages and a common language for those communications. This can lead to an unequal distribution of information, and the emergence of information-rich (those who have ICT access) and information-poor (those who do not have ICT access) communities. In terms of science communication, this means that the development of science tends to be located in information-rich communities, drawing on a partial body of pre-existing knowledge, experience, attitudes and beliefs and, importantly, talent. As science communicators, you may wish to consider ways in which you can communicate science to the widest possible audience.) The speed of communication has also changed. New technologies mean that communications can be received very speedily, and expectations for how quickly people will respond are shorter. In addition, those involved in the communication, can, potentially, be in contact over great distances. Where we would once send letters as a matter of course, we may now choose to send emails. These can be sent to one or many individuals, from diverse places in the world, leading to new connections between scientists and other groups. This has led some to talk of a ‘network society’, where electronic communications have had a profound role to play in developing connections between groups who might otherwise not have communicated (Castells, 1997).

New technologies have changed the working practices of scientists and science communicators, not least by influencing the volume of information that is available. Overall, these changes not only introduce new opportunities for communication, but also novel challenges. As an ICT-literate science communicator you can choose to consume a huge amount of digitally stored information, either in the course of your work as a scientist, or as a citizen, and you are also likely to be a contributor. The challenge for you is to make sense of which information is relevant, credible and useful, both as a scientist and as a citizen consuming science in the ‘information age’.

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