Science promotion
Science promotion

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Science promotion

6 Promoting science promotion: the move from deficit to dialogue

This course has tried to distinguish between institutional science outreach events and independent alternatives by recognising some of their characteristics and evaluating the extent to which they fulfil (and even create) a political mandate for PEST (Public Engagement in Science and Technology). Although institutional events sometimes involve the deficit style of ‘top-down’ transmission of facts, the examples provided in this course suggest that they are increasingly imaginative and unusual. Arguably, there is often a linear message being presented to the audience for their education, but there is also a tangible effort towards greater public engagement.

It seems worthwhile to reflect on the idea that these events offer an opportunity to institutionalise (and thus probably reproduce) better styles of science–public dialogue. In the UK, this ‘institutionalisation’ is via the government, which has political obligations to fulfil a PEST agenda, and via organisations such as the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) and the Wellcome Institute. Science–public debates in other countries will also influence the UK agenda by way of providing a more dynamic context. Rennie and Stocklmayer showed that this debate is vibrant in Australia, and you may be aware of initiatives in the USA and elsewhere in Europe. The EU ‘Science and Society Action Plan’ has already been introduced in this course and, at the level of the United Nations, UNESCO has Project 2000+, which aims to improve scientific and technological literacy around the world. It thus seems increasingly important to recognise how international factors may influence the move from deficit to dialogue in science promotion.

While thinking about how international agendas might be influential at the local and national level, a question was posed earlier about whether the opportunities that arise from also having to fulfil international commitments might encourage a wide-ranging approach to science outreach, or if in different countries obligations might be fulfilled reluctantly, perhaps reverting to ‘tried and tested’ deficit style events. This seems particularly apt to think about because of the commitments to the EU Science and Society Action Plan that the UK needs to fulfil.

The EU claims to work on behalf of its citizens as regards science and society, but by 2007 this covered half a billion people in 27 member states. It begs the questions of how achievable its shared aims are, and what major challenges lie ahead. Indeed, there are notable differences amongst EU countries in how science is perceived in society, although not necessarily in any uniform pattern. Whilst there is a common international language on the need to improve public engagement with science (largely for the reasons outlined in Section 4 of this course), there is also disparity amongst the EU countries.

While the reliance on survey methods to test scientific literacy is problematic, it might be worth reflecting briefly on the findings of Durant et al. (2000). They found a positive correlation between a country's level of industrialisation and the scientific literacy of its citizens, and between the length of time that a country has been industrialised and the optimism of its citizens about the extent to which science could solve broader societal problems. If such correlations do exist though, it may be difficult to maintain a pan-European ethos of public engagement amongst 27 different countries when some are more industrialised than others. Likewise, although there are still generally high levels of confidence and appreciation of science around Europe, in some EU countries (e.g. Britain) it is also an increasingly sceptical view. That said, the EU Action Plan might be fruitfully seen as a means to address this scepticism by institutionalising a move towards dialogue and greater public access to science on such a large scale. Reading 3 is an opportunity to reflect on some aspects of the EU Action Plan.

Activity 3

Reading 3 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] is two excerpts from Section 1 of the EU’s Science and Society Action Plan (2002) called ‘Promoting scientific education and culture in Europe’. Section 1.1 is called ‘Public Awareness’ and Section 1.3 is ‘Dialogue with Citizens’ (Section 1.2 ‘Science education and careers’ is not especially relevant to this course but, of course, you can follow it up yourself if you wish).

As you read the two excerpts, reflect on whether they illustrate all that science promotion could be.

  • Can you recognise an overall style of science promotion, perhaps one that fits the ‘deficit’ or ‘democracy’/‘engagement’ model (or both)?

  • Is there any acknowledgement of the cross-cultural tensions that might emerge from trying to encompass so many different countries and cultures, or does the Plan presume that science outreach is unaffected by local context?

Reading 3 seems to embody a common and contradictory rhetoric about science's place in society and how it might be best promoted. It recognises scientific expertise as a crucial part of modern democracy, yet assumes this will be supported by greater scientific literacy amongst the public. In theory it advocates the interactive model of science–public relations, but in practice it employs the deficit model. For example, Section 1.1 maintains that scientists have special knowledge and distinguishes science communication as a way to ‘present issues of interest to the public’, without once acknowledging the potential contribution of lay knowledge (arising from Pro-Ams, for example). Likewise, the Plan sees science promotion as essentially ‘top-down’, citing exhibitions and documentaries as especially useful mechanisms, and proposes a European Science Week to replicate successful events from around the EU (see Actions 6 and 7).

This is somewhat contradicted by Section 1.3, which is more progressive in its support for dialogue. For example, the EU is very supportive of Science Shops, mentioned earlier as characteristic of ‘Go Use’ events. Its support has allowed an international network to evolve, with Science Shops now in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. This international network trait allows the Science Shops to flourish autonomously whilst still benefiting from the resources and associations generated by the EU – presumably a way of encouraging complementarity between the public, research organisations and political institutions.

However, the tension between ‘linear’ (deficit) and ‘contextual’ (dialogic) science promotion styles is still evident. The Plan surmises, for example, that ‘The scientific and technological community will play an essential role by presenting issues of interest to the public at large, and by contributing to the debate’ (p. 14). But if this is to be followed, it does require scrutiny over issues such as how the EU intends to evaluate the ‘success’ of its science weeks, and how it will recognise those scientists that have ‘communication skills’, so they can be entered on its database (Action 2), and whether it is wise to rely on the media as a sympathetic vehicle for disseminating information (Action 1).

The simplifications in this part of the Action Plan are perhaps a little surprising. They seem to overlook the hard lessons learnt in the UK and elsewhere over the past fifteen years about making science–public relations genuine and interactive. It may also be worth considering the impact of the Action Plan's message in those countries outside the EU. The Rennie and Stocklmayer paper, for example, indicates some current thinking in Australia and yet many of their references are to the UK debate. Do you think there is a global agenda for PEST, perhaps in the light of issues such as HIV/AIDS and GM crops, or is the public mood for engagement in Australia one of the few examples of an agenda outside Europe and North America?

However, to be optimistic, the Action Plan also asks that ‘A true dialogue must therefore be instituted between science and society’ (Section 1.3, p. 14), through schemes like forums, hearings and Science Shops, operating at all levels within the Union. Their use of the word ‘instituted’ is interesting: perhaps the new generation of organised or institutional science promotion events will have ‘true dialogue’ as a key feature. Given all the diverse starting points within the EU, perhaps this is a step in the right direction, out of which more can grow.


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