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Is science communication growing up?

Is science communication growing up?

by Roland Jackson, Executive Chair of Sciencewise (Twitter: @Roland_Jackson)

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The annual jamboree of the Science Communication Conference is over for another year. It may be wishful thinking, but I picked up more reference this year to policy impact, and specifically to the activities of Sciencewise. Did this register with anyone else, or is this indeed wishful thinking?

The original, and still common, motivation for public engagement is the ‘tell and inspire’ model, whether it is within science centres, by those superb media communicators who need no identification, or by the many scientists and engineers who go out and talk about their work. Increasingly this process is recognised as two-way, as researchers discover the value of the perspectives that others, including ‘ordinary’ members of the public, can bring to their work.

The focus, though, is still very much on researchers and the public. That important and politically-contested area of policy – whether policy about science and technology or policy about issues involving science and technology – and the people at the centre of it –  the civil servants, institutional employees, regulators and politicians – is less evident in the priorities of science communicators. It is, however, evident in the activities of many scientists, and not just those who serve on advisory committees and the like. Yet this policy influence and advice by scientists is generally entirely separate from ‘public engagement’. But are there signs of change?

Sciencewise was specifically set up, as a programme of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, to address this nexus of policy and decision makers, experts of whatever relevance to the issue at hand, and publics. Scientists will know that three-body problems are harder to solve than two-body problems, and it is this complexity and the everyday politics that makes ‘science communication’ in this context particularly difficult. But it is the governance of science and technology and our ability to influence the impact of them on our lives that are central to so many public hopes and concerns, and require public involvement.

Several sessions at the Conference incorporated or led on to discussion about public engagement with science-related policy, often mentioning Sciencewise, including those I attended on ‘Communicating risk’, ‘What is wellbeing?’ and, not surprisingly ‘How science policy ‘really’ works’. This is a distinct change from previous years and I wonder if there is the start of a groundswell which says that involvement in policy and decision making, incorporating both expert and wider public knowledge and views, is an important purpose for science communication. Making that concrete is no easy task, as we have found within Sciencewise. But we are very open to ideas, offline or digital, for working with science communication partners on individual projects or more generally, if it is a specific priority for you. Please get in touch if you have any suggestions.

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