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

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3.5 Conclusions

The contemporary context for science communication is changing as policy initiatives introduce options for dialogue and consultation between science and society. At the same time, new communications technologies are being introduced that facilitate novel science communication activities. These new technologies, which exist alongside well-established channels for science communication, mean that scientific knowledge has the potential to be visible to a wide range of audiences. Those audiences are increasingly engaging in dialogue with experts and policy makers, contributing knowledge, experience, attitudes and beliefs to these consultation processes. As research students and citizens you are part of this wider context, and this places demands on you as a science communicator, as well as providing new opportunities for you to discuss science.

This section has discussed science communication as a process involving producers and receivers who are both motivated and constrained in their communicative practices. This process forms an ongoing cycle, in that the producers (e.g. scientists producing a journal article) will produce their paper within a set of norms and conventions that will be accessible to the receivers (fellow scientists). To do so, the producer will select information and then construct it to meet the expectations of the receiver. If the producers fail to follow these conventions, then the receivers may be confused, or not understand the communication. Alternatively, they may simply reject the communication as not being credible or trustworthy because it failed to follow recognised production processes. And to ensure that these processes are followed correctly, the editor of the journal (normally) appoints anonymous independent peer reviewers, as well as checking for themselves, to ensure that the work conforms to the journal's requirements and is an accurate, valid and reliable representation of the experimental work described therein with no mistakes. Hence, the producer needs to be aware of what the production processes are, as well as thinking through how the communication will be received, first by the editor of the journal, then by the reviewers and, if the paper is published, by the readership of the journal. To be successful in communicating science, then, scientists need to develop production and reception skills. If they succeed consistently and over a period of time then they are likely to establish a reputation as an effective scientist and science communicator.

This example gives primacy to the scientist as a communicator, producing knowledge. But, as has been argued, a wide range of social actors are also involved in communicating science, particularly when we consider science communication as dialogue and exchange within wider society. These social actors include:

  • scientists and scientific institutions, e.g. research councils, the Royal Society, Sir Robert Winston, Professor Susan Greenfield;

  • media professionals, e.g. journalists, editors, public relations agencies, educational programme makers;

  • non-governmental organisations, e.g. Save British Science, Genewatch, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust;

  • representatives from industry, e.g. pharmaceutical companies, the nuclear industry;

  • politicians and officials, e.g. the Science Minister, Chief Scientific Adviser;

  • other professionals and experts, e.g. patent lawyers;

  • members of the public, or citizens who do not fall into the categories above.

And these categories can overlap, e.g. the parent who insists that their child always washes their hands after they have used the toilet, the activist who campaigns against the introduction of GM crops, and the Professor of Geology who gives the keynote address at a prestigious scientific conference could be the same person. The Professor of Geology may advise their child in the morning, give the keynote address in the afternoon and eat GM-free food for lunch in between. In other words, we all communicate science, whether implicitly or explicitly. We all consume scientific information, whether via formal science education, informal learning (e.g. in museums), or as part of our everyday experiences. And we choose whether to do this with within specific circumstances and with a range of motivations and constraints.

In addressing some of the key issues facing contemporary science communication, this section has introduced a series of short extracts and a number of activities. A key aim of this section has been to reflect on the dynamic and indeterminate relationship between the production and reception of science communication. In discussing science and the media, Silverstone provides a useful summary to these issues in the form of four key assumptions:

  1. There is no such thing as the communication of science. Neither science nor the media environment is a unified phenomenon. Scientists disagree; the media present different accounts; receivers of scientific communication interpret each set of them in different ways, which may result in distinct, even disjointed, understandings.

  2. There is no such thing as the public. There are many publics for science: the specialist and the lay, the interested and the disinterested, the powerful and the powerless; young and old; male and female. While these publics will share much, they will also understand and misunderstand, remember and forget, in different ways.

  3. In the modern communication environment, science cannot claim any privileged status. Science has to compete for attention, from the producers and the receivers of communication. The knowledge claims of science will not necessarily [… ] float to the surface of media, professional, or public understanding of the world.

  4. The omnipresence of the media does not equal omnipotence. There can be little doubt that the media play an important role in bringing science to a wider public. Schools, through their delivery of formal knowledge, and television and museums, through their delivery of informal knowledge, play complementary roles in science education. Yet these sources of knowledge and understanding about science have to compete with and take their place alongside other sources and influences, both supportive and antagonistic to them. Local knowledges, practical understanding, and common sense: these can translate, transform, or resist scientific communication.

(Silverstone, 1991, pp. 106–7, emphasis in original)

The four assumptions that Silverstone outlines represent a significant challenge for communicators of science, one that should be welcomed by the scientific community in particular. To communicate effectively requires a number of skills, not least the ability to receive as well as produce information and to be able to adapt these skills to a range of different contexts. In this sense, the recent shift towards dialogic approaches in debates about science and society are helpful, but only if scientists are as willing to listen to the public as much as they are happy to produce information for them. To do this effectively requires a range of communication skills, some of which may come easier to you than others. Practice, of course, will help you to develop these overtime.

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