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23/09/2014

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Is there a science communication community?

Steve Cross thinks not.

What follows is my opinion and not that of my employer, funders, or any of the projects I’m involved with. At the Science Communication Conference, I was asked by the Editor of this magazine: ‘What do you think brings the science communication community together? Is it our shared values?’

Steve Cross thinks not.

What follows is my opinion and not that of my employer, funders, or any of the projects I’m involved with. At the Science Communication Conference, I was asked by the Editor of this magazine: ‘What do you think brings the science communication community together? Is it our shared values?’

I have to admit that I took a cheap shot: ‘The British Science Association takes part in the [ironically-named] Big Bang Fair, where weapons manufacturers have stands and interact with children. Does the Association share values with arms companies?’

I could have called on any number of political divides in science communication: Shell employ people to explain science; so do Greenpeace. To me these divides seem pretty obvious. There are others that are subtler and less obvious, but prey on the minds of people who have to make decisions about how to run organisations behind a lot of science communication.

Different agendas
I’m a public engagement professional; my job is fundamentally about exposing the university I work for, including its research and researchers, to people outside academia, and creating opportunities for meaningful dialogue that changes both communities and the university’s staff. I don’t tell members of the public that ‘science is fun’ or that ‘science has the answers’. I don’t even treat science as one great big unified thing. Instead I help researchers to share what they do. The message is less ‘We’re great!’ and more ‘Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think?’

Lots of science organisations subscribe to the same principles as this, but others work to an entirely different agenda. There’s a political divide between the people who cheerlead for ‘science’ and the people who attempt to open up scientific institutions, open up scientific processes, open up scientists to listen to publics.
It’s easy for me to do this; I work for a university that values critical thought, where a strong Department of Science and Technology Studies informs public engagement work, and researchers challenge simplistic portrayals of science and scientists. For organisations reliant on grants that don’t come with this scholarly view of what science is, this is a lot more difficult.

Cheerleading and challenging
The reason we have this tension is that the money is mostly in cheerleading, the money is mostly in pushing science forward and saying ‘Isn’t science wonderful?’ The money is mostly in encouraging children to become scientists, it’s mostly on PR for science. There isn’t a lot of money in challenging science.

I think there’s sometimes a perception that because science communicators use the same skills and congregate in the same spaces, we’re all somehow doing the same thing. But we’re clearly not. One of the joys of working for a university is that the science communication functions, and their aims, are clearly divided. There is a team to drive positive press coverage of research, another to recruit students, people working to improve the science aspirations of children, a corporate events team, people who help develop research into policy and a public engagement unit. We communicate science with clear and different aims.

Sometimes I get the impression that there are people who think I ought to ‘sell’ science more. There’s definitely a role for lobbying for science funding, for enthusing members of the public about research, and crucially for encouraging new generations to become scientists. I don’t, however, think we should turn off our critical faculties when we do so. If you’re cheerleading, please ask yourself who, or what, you’re really cheerleading for.

Oh, and make friends with sociologists of science and really good evaluators of science communication. They’ll help you see the wood for the trees.

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Dr Steve Cross
Dr Steve Cross is Head of Public Engagement at UCL
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