3 The value of institutional science promotion events
There are three reasons why these science promotion events are considered to be valuable.
Many people think that these events can be informational, educational and enjoyable. You can meet others of a similar outlook, learn something new, spend quality time with your family, or confront a nagging fear from your schooldays that you ‘don't understand science’. In turn, this could motivate you to find out more, either as a citizen and/or as a potential future scientist. Hence, these events can have at least one purpose – that which the Greeks referred to as eudaimonia or human flourishing. The chance to learn is part of this, as is the chance for people to share their knowledge about something that interests them. Probably we all like to do this, and many scientists will feel the same. Indeed, a survey commissioned by the Wellcome Trust in 1999–2000 found that scientists were very positive about communicating their research to the public. This is reminiscent of Michael Mulkay's claim that science embodies an ideology of sharing knowledge. In other words, it seems valid to argue that the pursuit of eudaimonia, for scientists and the public, is one reason why science promotion events are organised.
Commentators such as Robin Millar (1997) and John Durant et al. (2000) argue that promoting a greater understanding of science is an important public service. They believe that a better science awareness is crucial to sustaining economic prosperity in our modern knowledge-based society, since prosperity is dependent on a skilled workforce that is ‘scientifically literate’. Millar's argument in Science Today: Problem or Crisis? is that a reasonable grounding in science is crucial for democratic involvement – what we might call the ‘wise vote’. Science outreach is thereby a means to help society become scientifically literate enough to make a broader contribution to the country's economic and civic prosperity. (You will probably be aware, though, that defining and measuring scientific literacy is difficult – see the differences between, for example, the quantitative Eurobarometer surveys and the qualitative approach of Irwin (1995) or Layton et al. (1993). The paper by Jon Miller (1983) is also useful here.)
It can be argued that these events have political currency, letting those who join in feel a sense of involvement in a key knowledge system (and maybe a value system too) underpinning our ‘technocracy’. Thus, science promotion events can be vehicles for enhancing inclusivity and a sense of social cohesion. This reflects Irwin's ideas about ‘citizen science’ – he argues that:
traditional treatments of citizenship have concerned themselves very little with questions of knowledge and expertise. While such questions overlap with matters of empowerment and democracy, they also bring a new element into focus: the linkage between ways of knowing and of acting.
(Irwin, 1995, p. 178)
To summarise, science promotion can be to enhance individual fulfilment, social cohesion and democracy, and industrial and economic potential. If the overall aim is to raise public awareness of, accessibility to, and comfort with, science and technology issues, then this is a political mandate although one without an associated political party. It might be said, then, that science promotion is political, albeit in a broad sense and with a small ‘p’.
Some of these institutional events might also be characterised according to a second small ‘p’ – by seeing them as ‘paradigmatic’, or by conforming to current conventions and understandings such as accepted laws and theories, professional codes of conduct and experimental procedures. Thus it is interesting to speculate whether the programmes run by national governments, established institutions and large organisations might be more influential because of the inherent power attributed to them and because they reinforce familiar messages. We then have a third ‘p’ characteristic to consider – that of the privilege afforded to information from certain sources. Some information will be conveyed by these events at the expense of other information; if it is conveyed by an institutional source, then it may enjoy the privilege of association – or indeed the reverse.
We will return to some of these theoretical ideas towards the end of this free course. But to continue the analysis, the next section will consider ‘independent’ public engagement with science. Remember that these distinctions are not exhaustive or especially rigorous, but are created to try and help you understand the phenomenon of science promotion.