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Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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5 Communicating contemporary science

Communication is a vital component in the process that enables citizens and other stakeholders to engage with and evaluate contemporary science. Indeed, it is at the heart of scientific progress and public debate.

Sir Paul Nurse's advice to journalists in the previous section came, in part, as a response to an example where the communication of scientific information was deemed to have gone badly wrong. That example involved a now discredited suggestion, made at a press conference in 1998 by former doctor Andrew Wakefield, that the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination might be implicated as a cause of autism, as he had recently reported (Wakefield et al., 1998).

Study note 3 Further study about the vaccination controversy

If you wish to learn more about the MMR vaccination controversy that was fueled by Wakefield’s comments, you can study another OpenLearn course ‘The MMR vaccine: Public health, private fears [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’. (Be aware that studying this course in its entirety would involve around 20 hours of study time.)

How, then, do scientists communicate with other scientists and members of the public when debates about the science in question are less heated?

Activity 5 Communicating and engaging with contemporary science

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes

Listen now to another interview conducted by Richard Holliman, in which he speaks to Victoria (Vic) Pearson. In this interview, Vic discusses her involvement in science communication and engagement as a research scientist working in the School of Physical Sciences at The Open University.

As you listen, make some notes on the following questions, in the box below the audio clip.

  • In what ways does Vic communicate science? Of these, which does she consider to be the most important, and why?
  • How does Vic define the role of a reviewer of scientific papers and other forms of scientific output? How does she evaluate the quality of scientific evidence in her discipline?
  • In what ways does Vic engage different stakeholders and members of the public with her science? Of these, which does she consider to be the most important, and why?
  • What are some of the benefits and drawbacks that Vic discusses in relation to communicating her science to, and engaging with, various members of the public?
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Audio 5 Richard Holliman interviews Vic Pearson.
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Vic Pearson is a senior scientist with a wide range of experience in science communication and engagement.

In terms of science communication, she emphasises the importance of peer-reviewed academic research papers, both as a vehicle for science to progress and as a driver for career progression.

She notes that some academic journals are considered better quality than others, arguing that Science and Nature are two of the most prestigious journals to publish findings from scientific research.

Vic also discusses other routine forms of science communication, including poster presentations at academic conferences, and technical reports. In each case, the form of communication is targeted at a particular audience.

Vic goes on to describe her role as a formal and informal reviewer of other scientists’ work. You should be aware that scientists also informally review scientific information once it is published, as readers of newly-published research findings.

In essence, Vic goes through the same process whether she is formally or informally reviewing a paper. She systematically assesses each element of a scientific paper, starting with the methodology, matching this with the research design, and assessing the findings and the interpretations.

The discussion moves on at this point to consider how Vic engages non-academic groups with her science. Again, she lists a diverse set of activities, delivered to audiences that include school children and teachers. One of the key rationales for her work in this area is to keep young people and teachers up to date with cutting-edge research (Holliman et al., 2017), which is important because new research is being published all the time. In this respect, she reflects the findings of work conducted to explore the attitudes, culture and ethos of physical science researchers (Duncan et al., 2016).

Finally, Vic describes some of the benefits and drawbacks of her communication and engagement work. She is clearly passionate and enthusiastic about the need to work with public audiences, but also notes the time required to do this effectively. Again, this challenge reflects the findings of research conducted to explore the challenges and motivations of researchers as they seek to engage with members of the public (Grand et al., 2015).

This is made all the more challenging because this type of work doesn’t generate the same level of funding as research. It follows that engagement activities can fall down the priority list. This challenge can be exacerbated because, unlike research, there are few widely accepted criteria for what counts as excellent work in this area (Holliman and Davies, 2015).

Vic’s consumption of science news allows her to keep informed of developments outside of her specific scientific discipline. In this respect, she’s acting less as a scientist and more as a citizen interested in the sciences. What role then does science news, and therefore journalism, play in keeping citizens up to speed with developments in the sciences? This will be explored in the next section.

Study note 4 Learning more about science promotion

If you are interested in Vic’s research, you can use the following link to see her Open University profile and learn more about her recent work: Vic Pearson.

Similarly, if you are particularly interested in exploring approaches to science communication and engagement, you can study these issues in more detail with another OpenLearn course, ‘Science promotion’. (Be aware that studying this course in its entirety would involve around 12 hours of study time.)