How Much Science Communication Is Enough?

By Guest Work 30/06/2010 6


By Dr Michael Edmonds

Over the past couple of years I have spent time participating in, and thinking about science communication. I have observed an ongoing call for more scientists to engage with the public and to communicate science with greater clarity, and I have seen scientists around the world rise to this challenge.

Yet, there still appears to be a demand from the public for more science communication. Hilary Miller recently posted a link discussing an EU survey looking at public perceptions of science which included the following statistic – 57% of those surveyed think that scientists should be doing more to communicate their work to the general public.

This leads me to ask the question — How much science communication is enough? We already have scientists trying to engage the public through newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, books, and public talks. There are also many excellent science programmes available on TV and DVD. So how much more do we need, or does the problem lie elsewhere?

While I think more science communication would be beneficial, I suspect that part of the problem does lie elsewhere. The public may, when surveyed, ask for more science communication but how many of them follow this up when opportunities are made available? How many are willing to take the time to attend a public talk, or buy a well written generalist science book? How many regularly read science magazines or blogs?

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who teaches first year university science. Concerned that students might need more opportunities for learning, she asked a large (several hundred) first year cohort how many would be interested in extra tutorials. A large number of the students agreed that tutorials would be helpful. Yet when the tutorials were established, less than ten students attended regularly.

Scientists can do their best to make science entertaining and relevant to the public, but for the public to understand science, it does require some effort on their part as well. Communication is a two way process.

Dr Michael Edmonds is an educator, researcher and manager at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He has strong interests in the communication and promotion of science.


6 Responses to “How Much Science Communication Is Enough?”

  • On the one hand, Mike, I agree. I do think scientists actually are quite successful in making their messages accessible. Although I think the media certainly doesn’t help much and do tend to under-rate science when it comes to coverage and TV programming.

    However, the science we do see is surely a lot more understandable than what we get every night on TV about financial matters. I certainly can’t understand what these suits say. They seem to happily restrict their message to those with financial skills. And they do that every night with no one complaining! Now if we could only get some of their T time.

    Similarly sport (although I guess there is far more pressure for the average Kiwi to become familiar with “off-side” rules, etc.). There is a funny bit of writing somewhere portraying criticism of sport reporting if it were treated the same way as science reporting.

    On the other hand I think it really helps if scientists learn to communicate to lay people – and are encouraged to do so. There should be more of this – although we must recognise that some will have particular skill in this area. Others have skill in other areas.

    But it has become fashionable to some scientists and science journalist to self flagellate on this question. Chris Mooney’s recent article is a case in point as he see the problem with communication as mainly the fault of scientists themselves.

    However, we just can’t expect everybody to be scientific literate, or want to be. Some people will always have absolutely no interest.

  • Ken, you make some good points. I think it is important that scientists keep trying to engage the public, but as you suggest, we can’t expect everyone to be scientifically literate or even interested in science. The best we can do is provide opportunities for the public to learn more about science IF they are interested.
    And I am tired of the self flagellation, or even worse, putting up with the ill informed criticisms of those like Simon Jenkins as you have described in your recent article.
    Science communication has to be a two way process; Scientists trying to describe science clearly and interestingly and “the public” making an effort to understand what they are being told.

  • These are very interesting comments! I spend a fair amount of my time finding different ways to communicate my science and my profession to anyone who will listen and I have found similar responses: when people are present, they find what I have to say very interesting, but they don’t want to have to ‘go and get it’ – they want it in front of them.
    I suspect that the public who said they wanted more science information are those people who work all day in non-scientific jobs and come home and do what most average people do (scientists and non) – flop out in semi-exhaustion in front of the TV. As Ken said, if we could get some of the finance guys’ time slots then we could put science into the public frame at prime time – the ‘captive audience’ stage. I for one would be all for ditching Dancing On Ice for something along the lines of what we used to have in England (and I think was also here) like Tomorrow’s World. It might cost more to do it, but it would be more interesting (and lots of fun to make!).

  • I wonder if it is useful here to distinguish here between traditional broadcast communication and communication on demand. The public may not necessarily make the time or effort to understand the vast majority of broadcast information, but most of the media we use to communicate these days is archived and available on demand (esp. blogs, tv etc). If a layperson becomes interested in a topic, for whatever reason, scientists need to make sure that the relevant information is out there in an accessible form.

    We might despair of the lack of effectiveness of broadcast communication but we should take heart that our communications are being archived and that a motivated member of the public will have access to it when they need it, and when they are prepared to put in the effort to understand it.

    Those first year students may not turn up to the tutorials, but they certainly appear at your door the day before the exam!

  • Ken,

    It is interesting that financial reportage more-or-less insists that people learn their language, presumably on the grounds that if you interested in money it’s up to you!

    Shaun,

    Those first year students may not turn up to the tutorials, but they certainly appear at your door the day before the exam!

    I have a horrible feeling Alison would have a word or two to say about that! 🙂 In fact she may already have…