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Get with the real thing!

Non-scientists should shape science communication, argues Tracey Brown

What do people want? Philip Kitcher, in his excellent book on science in a democratic society (2011 Science in a Democratic Society, Prometheus Books, New York), points out that people want public participation in debates about science, only they don’t want to do it themselves. This will resonate with many science organisations which have expanded their public engagement efforts over recent years but are wondering who’s expected to show up. Many of them have been asking questions about which bit of the public to engage. How many? How do we reach them? How will we know if it was useful?

Where it’s really happening

It’s time for science communication to break out of its ‘us and them’ approach. It’s not a snooty thing, rather an assumption that discussion – dialogue, communication, whatever you like calling it – is an exchange between scientists and non-scientists. Well, for the most part it isn’t. Vast amounts of discussion about science and evidence, information-seeking and debating are going on between non-scientists. Some is quite formal, like a health visitor consultation on whooping cough. Some is informal, like university careers offices chatting about removing clinical trials adverts after a worrying press story. Some spontaneously erupts and seeks arbitration, like a farmers’ cooperative on use of GM animal feed. (And also like a row that raged over fluoridation in the kitchen last Christmas while I struggled to watch Dr Who.)

Working out where to direct the time and resources available to science communication is difficult. Most science bodies have spotted the media’s role and dedicate efforts towards it. But what of the horticultural societies, health visitors, professional press, lifestyle and exercise instructors, police encountering new legal highs, local councillors, community services and helplines? We need to look at serving these non-scientist (or non-specialist) intermediaries better.

Lack of support

For me, one thing that is likely to bring a possible action up the list is being contacted by people who are trying to get sound science and evidence into a discussion but finding themselves hindered by a lack of support or resources. You would be surprised at how little consideration has been given to this even in subjects that have witnessed high profile debates. While the MMR debate first raged, nurses and health visitors had nothing to help their encounters with parents armed with pages from anti-vaccination websites. In a similar vein, allegations about health risks from mobile phones and masts raged in the newspapers and Parliament for years. But could a local authority, faced with a public planning meeting about siting masts near houses, find something to guide them on what the radiation does? No.

Newly-qualified teachers have fought with their Heads to drop the pseudoscientific ‘Brain Gym’, and Mumsnet forums have buzzed with questions about the risks of the Fukushima incident for holidaying in Japan. (We were helped here by the wonderful Paddy Regan from Surrey who put himself forward.)

Current needs

My examples could run to pages. There are thousands of non-scientists who use or communicate about research, and thousands more who take a lead in informal discussions about science and related areas of environment, medicine and health and safety. We need more attention to what these non-scientist science communicators are grappling with. And then let it lead and shape the contribution from science. I know there’s an inclination for going upstream, to work out approval for a new technology for example, but more of science communication should be generated around current needs and dictated by them. So let’s shift a bit. Not so much looking at research and dreaming up the Q&As and the FYIs and the FAQs of the future – go and get the real thing, as it’s happening, right now.

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is the Director of Sense About Science
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