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What does communicating to the public mean for the average scientist? Well, this has changed much over the past few decades. Once seen as something that might perhaps damage a science career, good science communication is now viewed as “no less than a duty” (Gregory and Miller 1998) and seen as a positive career step. In fact some scientists have pursued the goal of communicating effectively with the public as a career choice in and of itself – take Dr Ben Goldacre or Prof Brian Cox as two prominent examples of “popularisers” (Bucchi 2004); the former endeavours to help us see facts and figures as they really are without the distortion that the media and life in general can cause, while the latter brims with enthusiasm for our universe and encourages us to gaze upwards. The new role of the modern media-savvy scientist, it seems, is to help us, the public, ask questions again as we did when we were children and not be afraid of finding out.
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The public, of course, is not just one uniform entity. There are more variants of publics than there are hydrogen-bonded crystals falling from the sky on a cold Winter’s day. Natalie Angier (2007) illustrates this well in her retelling of an interview with Michael Rubner, a materials scientist at MIT. He tells her a joke about famous physicist Werner Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle that says you can know either the position of an electron or its velocity but never both at the same time.
Heisenberg is giving a lecture at MIT and because he’s late he is pulled for speeding. The cop says: “Do you know how fast you were going?” to which Heisenberg replies, “No, but I know where I am!”
Rubner says that the joke would bomb at a cocktail party but an audience of eighteen-year-olds at MIT would raise the roof with laughter.
Filling in the blanks
So how does the scientific community educate (and entertain) the public at large and how simple or complicated should science communication be? I think this is summed up well by geophysicist Robert M. Hazen and physicist James Trefil – as quoted by Gregory and Miller (1998, location 270*) – when they say that newspaper headlines such as “Genetically Engineered Tomatoes on Shelves” leave members of the public with a need to “fill in whatever blanks have been left by [their] formal education” if they are to understand the implications of such science on their lives.
And as Habermas would tell you, the post-industrial public sphere is not just a receptacle for information but a vibrant arena where information is passed around, picked apart, created and modified.
So the scientific community cannot expect a mute audience to receive information without question (the traditional “sender-transmitter-receiver” model of communication), and it doesn’t. More recently science communicators have been actively looking at a method of public engagement that aims to bring in the public at the early stages of science: “upstream” communication.
We’re all swimming upstream
But before I go into the nuances of upstream pubic engagement we need to understood why it came as a breath of fresh air. Up until 2004 the public understanding of science chiefly operated on the deficit model – that is, it approached the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) from a position where scientists were trying to deliver information to an ignorant public. Wilsdon and Willis (2004) take this three-letter acronym of PUS and explain how it was “clogging the cracks and pores that might have allowed genuine dialogue to breathe”.
The chief problem with PUS – aside from assuming that the great unwashed is also the great uneducated, unwitting, unenlightened and uninformed – is that it takes the three key words of ‘public’, ‘understanding’ and ‘science’ and doesn’t always consider their complicated and dynamic definitions. If we go back to Habermas’ definition of the public sphere then the public we are concerned with is that of “active, independent, and responsible citizens, with power, wealth, and influence, armed with the latest information and debating the conditions of their social existence and interests” (Gregory and Miller 1998, locations 2,057-87).
And science itself is by its very nature fluid and ever-changing … but what if we were to bring the public on this dynamic journey – and not just at the later stages when papers are published and policies implemented?
This is the thinking behind what the Royal Society did in 2004 in order to increase the public understanding of a newly emerging field of science – nanotechnology. The Royal Society brought together a panel of experts or working group to look at how nanotechnology would impact upon society at large and for the first time this panel was not just comprised of the scientific elite. The public was involved and represented:
For inquiries of this nature, such voices are often called to give evidence, but for them to sit as equals alongside ʻrealʼ scientists is rare. (Wilsdon and Willis 2004, p. 3)
What this meant was that besides professors of physics, chemistry, medicine and engineering there were also representatives from the fields of environmental science and social science as well as someone acting on behalf of the consumer.
One of the most important reasons for needing this new form of engagement is because “blind faith in the men in white coats is gone and hasn’t come back” as Ben Page (2004), chief executive of UK research powerhouse Ipsos MORI put it.
Mad cows, misinformed public
One case study that puts forward the case for upstream public engagement has to be the media coverage of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis) or “mad cow disease” in the UK in the early nineties and how scientists communicated or failed to communicate with the public.
The public were told repeatedly that British beef was safe, as was milk, only to have various trading restrictions put in place that conflicted with these messages. For example the Ministry’s chief veterinary officer Keith Meldrum told the public that there was no risk of BSE transmission through milk but little under a year and a half later milk from BSE-infected cows was banned from sale (Gregory and Miller 1998).
Meanwhile the deputy minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could not have been more condescending:
The thing that annoys me is that we have published all the facts about BSE …. When you get into a situation where people don’t want reassurance and want to scare themselves to death there’s nothing you can do about it. Commonsense and science seem to have gone out of the window. (Craig and Francis 1990, p. 5)
The British government was stating categorically that beef was safe while most scientists expressed their concern that this was not a scientifically proven fact one way or the other and the president of the National Farmers’ Union aptly said that the public can tell when there are “voids in communication”.
This led to what was described as civic dislocation or a breakdown in communications between the UK public and their public institutions.
Only the interested
This is something we can learn from. Craig and Francis, in their conclusion, cite Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School in the US, who thinks that it is possible to have a discreet and insulated decision-making process where the experts call the shots and the public are included in a downstream fashion but when a set of background conditions exist.
These conditions preclude uncertain and contested science by definition in that there exist “objective facts” and easily identifiable expert knowledge on the subject. What I am saying is that the Royal Society made a good decision to include the public in an earlier stage of engagement and have dialogue around the subject of nanotechnology because opening up the debate is infinitely better for the greater public understanding of science than aiming to close down the debate as the BSE incident showed.
I will leave my views on upstream public engagement with a few negatives to add to all the positives: it will always be a great challenge because there is a balance between engaging the interested and hooking new customers (although “gateway drugs” like science fiction movies have their uses!).
Increasing the public understanding of science is a noble and indeed important pursuit because the modern citizen – whether working, learning, purchasing, voting or creating – has a right to information on existing science and technology as well as the ongoing research and innovation that so profoundly shape our lives.
Don’t know, don’t care
One of the problems inherent in this noble pursuit, says Angier (2007) is that sometimes she gets the feeling that people are not listening or, if they are, they’re not understanding. She relays a story about the weekly science section of the New York Times that the chief editor of the overall paper claims to love before sending out a thank you note to the staff that shows he’s not even sure what day it’s printed on. “Oy, it hurts!,” she says. Scientists are increasingly been encouraged to fit into this role of science communicator, all the while wondering if it is a form of lip service and hoping that the science supplement doesn’t get thrown out with the free catalogues. I remember one of the first times a story of mine was published – it was on robotics – and I was sitting behind a businessman on a flight to the UK. He had the newspaper in his hands and I was waiting for the thrilling moment when he would turn to my story and hopefully learn something new. He reached the technology section, ripped it out and dumped it on the floor before turning to the finance section. Oy, it hurts.
There is however, always plenty of hope in science, and upstream offers huge opportunities to science communicators to get excited about scientific research and convey this to the public. Upstream science journalism, says academic and writer Alice Bell (2010), “swaps that cliché of ‘scientists have found’ for ‘scientists are doing’” so it feels as though a brand new paradigm is evolving whereby we can shrug off the mantle of archaeologist in favour of explorer.
But there is another great reason to engage the public in science and that is to bring research out into the open and ensure greater transparency when it comes to data. In Europe the public desire for greater accountability and transparency had an opening around the time the European Union was developing Framework 7, which proposed to increase its R&D budget from €17.5bn to €40bn. This was obviously quite a large amount of money and various NGOs and other organisations decided that they wanted more say as European citizens in how the money was being spent and wanted it to be for the public good i.e. in areas including public health and social issues (Stilgoe et al 2005).
This came to pass when the objectives of FP7 were categorised as follows: cooperation, ideas, people and capacities and was answerable to the public on issues such as how citizens or SMEs could benefit from this R&D fund that expires in 2013 (The main objectives of FP7: Specific programmes 2007).
While this was a welcome step it can only go so far when it has its limitations when it comes to scientific misconduct, for which funding represents the weakest link. Institutions of research and education are operating in an increasingly competitive environment where hundreds of research scientists are vying for the same funding, data must be protected until a paper is ready to be published and there is the temptation to fudge numbers in order to ensure your research is earning its keep.
In this context one of the biggest science stories and indeed one of the biggest controversies of 2010 involved climate change scientists and the allegations that some scientists were involved in professional misconduct and has manipulated data. Thousands of private emails between the scientists involved were published on a Russian website and spread across the web and these emails were framed in the context of fudging numbers. On the one hand the scientists were cleared of the alleged misconduct while on the other hand it was pointed out that there was a lack of “openness” to the wider scientific community and the public (de Bias 2010, p. 29).
The Harvard definition of scientific misconduct recognises that honest error or differences of opinion do not fall into this category:
“Research misconduct” or “misconduct in research” includes fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results (Harvard, 2009)
Sokal and his lo-cal “morphogentic field”
Then there is the famous case of Sokal and his quantum quackery. Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, decide to write a fictional paper comprised of academic buzzwords and terminology that in effect made no sense at all. It was an experiment to see of it would pass the rigours of peer review by virtue of being in with the in-crowd. Transgressing the frontiers was published in a journal called Social Text and Sokal went about exposing the “intellectual laziness and weak scholarship” he observed (Bucchi 2004, location 1787).
So there is an insular nature to the scientific community that perhaps cannot be penetrated by the public sphere but there are increasingly initiatives from scientists to reach out to the public and this can be a good form of self-regulation. The advent of the Internet meant that organisations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the UK Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and Technology (COPUS&T) could reach a wider audience.
Would you like science with that?
In fact the number of American science centres that provided informal environments for the science-hungry public rose from 17 to 300 from 1972 to 1997 (Gregory and Miller 1998, locations 4,678-738) and concepts such as the science museum flourished.
These are good initiatives but the public does have an impact on scientific conduct or misconduct. In fact the increasing publicity surrounding research fraud since the late 1960s combined with the fact that more and more funding is coming from private enterprise has led to a paradigm shift in how research ethics are kept in check (Montgomery & Oliver 2009). In fact the various publics create the norms of research integrity. This paper shows the evolution of research integrity from a time when self-regulation was seen as the norm and science was simply the pursuit of truth.
This changed in the early 1970s when it was viewed in the context of preventing scientific misconduct following the public awareness of several highly unethical studies such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Milgram experiments in group conformity – studies that would never be allowed today. Then the public sphere played an even greater role from the 1990s onwards as research integrity defined itself by how it engaged with those outside the scientific community and how open and transparent they were seen to be. This was also informed by ‘post-academic science’ where research had begun to take place in an industrial setting and private funding.
An interesting editorial in the February 2010 issue of Science shows what the science community today thinks of research ethics and outright states that scientific misconduct or even the accusation of such “weakens the bridge between science and society” but goes on to say that this bridge can be strengthened with better public engagement and “vigourous enforcement of scientific behavioural norms”. But what are those norms?
Sociologist Robert Merton defined them in the forties with what he called CUDOS says Stilgoe et al (2005): communalism, universal, disinterested, original and scepticism. This does not exactly hold true today and communalism never really has as many scientists will keep data to themselves before publishing a paper, and why not if it could be stolen and published by another?
I think that public engagement is rapidly become one of the influencing factors of scientific behavioural norms and it is worth saying that several publics are involved in keeping science on the straight and narrow, including the media and the legal system. The public needs all the facts before they can make an informed decision and these two institutions can play crucial roles.
Mind the gap
To paraphrase Irish comedian and former student of theoretical physics Dara O’Briain, what science doesn’t know or hasn’t proven yet cannot be conveniently filled with pseudoscience and hokum that preys on people’s lack of understanding.
UK journalist Simon Singh (2008) brought chiropractic into the mainstream after writing an article debunking its scientific legitimacy. When sued by the British Chiropractic Association he raised important issues around British libel law and free speech but this indirectly raised public awareness of science versus pseudoscience.
Similarly Ben Goldacre, another British journalist and qualified medical doctor, exposed Gillian McKeith – a “nutritionist” who was making a living promoting her healthy eating regimes based on her claim that she was a doctor of nutrition. Goldacre brought it to public attention that the term “nutritionist” was not protected in the way that “dietician” is and also proved how easy it was for McKeith to get her title of doctor by sending away for the same title in the post for his cat/ His cat now shares the same title of “doctor of nutrition” as McKeith and is equally qualified to advise us on our eating habits so that we don’t make a dog’s dinner of our diets.
You see, scientific misconduct can also include the existence of pseudoscience that is a blight on the scientific community. The pubic can play an active role in rooting out this kind of misinformation and the public should be actively involved even if the media is often seen as a ‘dirty mirror’ and the public are frequently approached from the diffusionist method of science communication.
In conclusion I’ll leave you with a quote from science historian Michael Shortland who questioned scientific elitism in favour of public understanding and engagement.
“What role for lesser mortals? To clap from the sidelines?”
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