Maker Faire UK - a general shot of the hall at the Centre for Life

25 years of science communication progress

At last week’s Science Communication Conference, I joined a plenary panel to discuss what’s changed in the 12 years the conference has been running. I’ve been kicking around in the sector for more like 25 years so I played a bit fast and loose with the timescale, but my little spot in the limelight went more-or-less as follows:

I’m not entirely sure I believe in ‘the science communication sector.’ Which is a bit like saying the science communication conference audience doesn’t exist. Huh.

We operate a huge range of different models, we’re at different stages of skills development, we work with differing and diverse audiences. You can group our efforts in all sorts of ways, none of which make much sense,  so for the sake of convenience we draw a big circle around it all and call it ‘scicomms.’ Talking about that as a single thing is always going to be messy. So this sort of grand overview perspective is really the only way you can talk about this movement. I’m making hand-waving arguments partly out of necessity.

To my eye, looking back over a couple of decades, there’s one thing which should have changed but hasn’t, and another that shouldn’t have changed but has.

1. Science communication is run predominantly by scientists.

As scientists, we’re very highly trained to think of science as being uniquely and delightfully challenging. When we’re communicating science, we think the science is the hard part. We’re really not good, collectively, at recognising how skilled good communication work is. It’s not that scicomms should be run by non-scientists, it’s that we need to do better at understanding our limitations.

For example: we have a bizarre relationship to audience scale. We see the difference between an audience of a thousand and another of a million as being a few zeros. Nothing scary about that, we can cope with orders of magnitude.

We miss the 999,000 individuals who make up that difference.

So I think we have a blind spot about scaling, and hence about impact on a societal level.

2. Where did the fire go?

The thing that’s changed but shouldn’t have is that we’re less ambitious than we used to be. We were young and naive and wanted to change the world. Did that get lost along the way?

In the last few years there’s been talk about striving towards science being a cultural activity alongside art and music and literature and so on. I’ve been known to bang that drum myself. The more I think about it, however… I don’t think that sort of objective is really actionable, and I don’t think it’s a big enough ambition.

I don’t want science to be relegated to “Shall we watch a play tonight, darling, or shall we do some science?”, I want something more. Something like:

Individual members of society making rational decisions based on their understanding of the relevant science, throughout their lives.

Phrasing that sort of statement is always going to be a problem, and we could doubtless argue about every single word. But the sentiment is roughly what we’re aiming for, isn’t it? Surely?

In which case: how is that expressed through our projects? How is it captured in our funding calls? How are we, individually and collectively, making that future come about?

Hint: we’re really not.

So what has changed?

The really big developments over the last twelve years are, I think, TED, the Make/Maker Faire movement, and Minecraft. All three hit the above two issues:

a. They fit the model of ‘connecting people with ideas in one segment of their life, which they apply in others,’ and:
b. They’ve scaled really well.

None of these three started as science or engineering communication projects. They’re not driven by academics. Indeed, they all emerged from the bit of STEM to which we pay least attention: from the technology world.

I think, in the last 12 years, the tech sector has kicked our arses.

8 thoughts on “25 years of science communication progress”

  1. Jonathan,

    I like your comments and most especially the ambition you express:

    “Individual members of society making rational decisions based on their understanding of the relevant science, throughout their lives.”

    Regarding your second point, I can’t speak for anyone else, but my fire hasn’t gone out – although it has (along with many other people) had cold water sprayed on it.

    I think the key issue is that Sci-comms is based on the idea of some kind of a pedagogy – and that is a difficult concept in our post-modern world.

    Although I am definitely in favour of there being basically ‘more’ and ‘better’ sci-comm activity – I think there are real issues about avoiding ‘preaching’ – about the seemingly unstoppable triumph of the loud and confident – about avoiding ‘spinning’ scientific issues – and about being >too< professional in communication activities.

    You mentioned 'rationality' in your ambition. I think if people are rational then there is enough 'stuff' (MInecraft, maker fairs, TED), to allow a sic-comm spark to ignite a flame that will burn and burn.

    So encouraging rationality is a key aim. How about a quarter of a century of rat-comms?

    1. I think that some of the fire has gone into a range of really good TV programmes and internet presentations. There used to be just Horizon and David Attenborough. Now there are loads of programmes, right from Nina and the Neurons for pre-schoolers, through Brian Cox, Youtube videos of coke and Mentoes and the Leisendorf effect, the RI’s own Channel, and on up to cutting edge, difficult open lectures on the internet (eg Susskind on quantizing gravity). So we have a large choice of, mostly very good, channels operating in this space.

      But people are not rational, or are rational in a way relevant to themselves rather than society. I don’t think ‘individual members of society will ever make rational decisions based on their understanding of science’, when many of us scientists can’t even do it.

  2. The aim of getting “Individual members of society making rational decisions based on their understanding of the relevant science, throughout their lives” is one I think a lot of people in the “skeptic” movement might see as the focus / aim of what they do. It’s also not a bad aim for science education…

  3. Probably ought to say that I am more than aware that, ultimately, regardless of how much science we study or how good we are at it, there are limits to the extent to which we can make decisions rationally. We’re creatures driven by emotion who sometimes manage to act rationally. Whole bunch of other thoughts on this, but probably best not to try to articulate them while still in bed on a Saturday morning….

  4. Perhaps “Individual members of society making informed decisions based on their understanding of the relevant science, throughout their lives” is a better aim, and more representative of what are trying to do?

    1. I suspect “confident” is a better adjective, as it avoids the implicit external value-judgements of “rational” (to whom?) or “informed” (by whom?). But as I wrote, we could argue over the wording of that whole phrase for a long time, particularly if we interpret it as a mission statement.

      The key is to recognise that it’s not a mission statement for science communicators; it’s a description of our audiences, and of how we want them to feel.

  5. I think the dichotomy between “science as culture” and “people making rational decisions” is false. We can pursue multiple aims simultaneously. Of course, it does help to know what the aims are, so listing these two is a good start.

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