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

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3.4 Science communication and citizenship: getting involved

This section began with a brief review of the current context for science communication, noting the calls for greater dialogue and consultation between science and society. This is important for a number of reasons, as illustrated by the following simplified examples. It has been argued that we are currently living (in the UK) in an ‘information age’ and that we rely on a ‘knowledge-based economy’ for economic prosperity. To these ends a common argument put forward by Western governments is that the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge are crucial factors in securing a future society that can compete economically with other countries. But this is only one small part of the story, because for the knowledge-based economy to work effectively requires a workforce with suitable skills. To achieve this requires effective education and training completed by a body of students who are motivated to study the relevant subjects in sufficient numbers to fill the requisite posts. In other words, the UK economy requires a healthy and productive scientific community, and this requires, among other factors (e.g. funding, infrastructure, etc.), well-trained and highly motivated scientists. As research scientists you are part of the scientific workforce and can play a part in engaging potential future generations of science students through participation in outreach activities, such as school visits, workshops, or public engagement and awareness events organised by scientific institutions (such as the British Association, the Royal Society, the Royal Institution) and scientific research councils (e.g. National Science Week).

Of course, engagement activities do not have to be events run by formal scientific institutions. For example, new communications technologies provide novel ways of engaging with the public. By creating a weblog to represent the everyday authentic practices of a research scientist you can engage fellow citizens and scientists in your work. Through your weblog, you may wish to reflect on your own and your colleagues’ experiences of conducting science; communicating the human element to your audience that would otherwise be removed through formal academic publication. You might also wish to consider what motivated you and your colleagues to study science, using this to inform your communication to others. But most importantly for all engagement activities, you need to see science communication as an active and ongoing exchange with audiences, and a weblog provides such an opportunity for exchange. To this end, you should develop engagement activities with the audience to facilitate interactive exchanges. In this way, the expert and the non-expert can learn from each other. This may not resolve all the differences between those communicating, but it does have the potential to increase levels of shared understanding and mutual respect.

This is particularly important because we live in a representative democracy, which means that the incumbent government is accountable to the electorate for a range of issues, including science policy. The government is responsible for producing legislation that facilitates the development of the knowledge-based economy and, therefore, of a healthy and productive scientific community, but within a regulatory framework that addresses issues of safety, ethics, security, and so on. In keeping with this system of representative democracy, citizens have an important role to play, not only in participating in the democratic process, but also in making everyday decisions based on science. Overall, this means that the government needs to address issues relevant to its citizens to ensure that public perceptions of science involve high levels of trust, confidence and informed consent. At the same time, citizens have a democratic right to support or challenge aspects of science policy, providing relevant local knowledge to inform these processes. This brings us back to the relationship between science and society and the importance of science communication. We are all citizens and we all make decisions based on scientific knowledge, drawing on our prior knowledge, experience, attitudes and beliefs. The recent moves towards dialogue and consultation will make demands on you as an expert to exchange information rather than just provide it. But it also provides you with the opportunity as a citizen to engage with the development of science policy through consultation exercises, such as the recent GM Nation? public debate (for more information, see http://www.gmnation.org.uk/).

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