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?
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.