Communicating science

There is a general lack of understanding of how advances in science and technology affect our lives. Against this background, controversial or sensational reporting on food safety, GMOs, bird flu, global warming or, for example, stem cell research can leave citizens confused and frightened and science misunderstood. This is why scientists are increasingly asked to communicate their work to a wider audience and science communicators and the media to act as the responsible bridge between the scientists and society.

The Commission's Science and Society Action Plan was adopted in 2001. The programme supports activities that bring together policy-makers, researchers and citizens. It aims to help to society contribute to policy-making in a more informed manner, encourages rapid and open communication of scientific opinions and promotes actions by the scientific community with media and society. 

Research projects funded by the EU's framework programmes have a contractual obligation to communicate their results. To help projects generate information and publicity about their research objectives, outcomes and the benefits for citizens, the Commission published 'A guide to successful communications' in July 2004.

The results of a recent Eurobarometer survey (June 2005) on Europeans, Science and Technology show that there is a "latent" interest among Europeans for science and technology and implicit demand for more information. The survey also confirms a 'comprehension gap' between science and society - the way scientists handle information for the general public is criticised and those not interested in science and technology state "lack of understanding" as their main reason.

Most of the funding for research in Europe comes from the public purse. Thus the scientists have a duty to explain how public funds are being spent and what the benefits of their research are. As the media is the most important source of information about science and technology for the public, helping journalists to produce factual and understandable information is of great importance to society. 

Furthermore, communicating science helps researchers from different disciplines share scientific information, a major issue for interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research is heavily emphasised in the Commission proposal for the Seventh EU Framework Programme for Research and Development (FP7). Attractive and intelligible coverage of science and technology naturally attracts more support for research as well as more talented students to careers in science. Both issues are high up on the Commission's current research policy agenda.

The Commission has started to devote special attention to communicating science and different European level initiatives have flourished since the adoption of the Science and Society action plan in 2001: 

  • CER - Communicating European research:  two conferences entitled 'Communicating European Research - What’s in it for you?' and 'Communicating European Research 2005' have brought together project coordinators, representatives form research organisations, journalists, press officers and other communication professionals to promote mutual understanding between their respective roles and to define strategies to improve the way science is reported to European citizens.  
  • MESSENGER (Media, Science and Society: Engagement and Governance in Europe): an EU-funded project consulted scientists, journalists, civil society, policy makers and industry on how to boost an informed debate on science and technology. It has published (see EURACTIV 9 January 2007) guidelines for scientists on how to communicate with the media, developed a layperson's guide to decoding science stories and training material for journalists. 
  • AthenaWeb: an audio-visual scientific information web portal dedicated to promoting the communication of science in Europe. The portal is designed to encourage distribution of scientific audio-visual programmes produced in Europe, facilitate co-productions and improve the visibility of science and research news in general. 
  • EU Descartes Prize for communicating science:  a prize awarded to projects aiming to bring science closer to the citizens.
  • Xplora: a web portal aimed at boosting science education in Europe. 
  • Pan-European Science and Technology week: celebrated since 2000, the aim of this annual event is to show rather than tell Europeans, how science is relevant to all.

Professor Colin Blakemore, from the Research Councils UK, thinks that "communication is particularly important in areas of practical and ethical concern about the applications of science. With rapid advances in scientific research, all scientists have to find opportunities to increase public awareness and public involvement because we cannot take public support for granted. Public engagement takes time and effort, but it helps scientists to see their own research in a broader context as well as helping to build public confidence and trust, which are essential for scientific progress."

Sir David Wallace, vice president of the Royal Society, says that, scientists engaged to public communication activities still need to be allowed to carry on conducting excellent research and to progress in their careers. "We recognise that it is not desirable to require all scientists to undertake public engagement work," he said.

President of the European association for organisations for Science Communication Events (EUSCEA), Mikkel Bohm: "Events is a growing 'method' in the field of science communication and science events are now considered a very important part of the overall efforts to communicate science in Europe."

Dr. Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), finds the science-society dialogue "more tense" than before and says that "the assumption that scientific literacy is a problem is not right". Referring to the stated need to communicate science more and better to the public he thinks that "we can't just educate our way out of the divide between science and society, because the problem is not people's lack of understanding of scientific issues - but the very fact that they don't like some advances of science". "If research has always been evaluated according to the costs/risks-benefits equation, today much of the research touches upon issues of core human values and this is why society wants to influence science instead of just being influenced by it", he explains - making reference to R&D on cloning, stem cells, studies on personal topics such as sex and genetics of behaviour (aggression, intelligence). 

Dr. Leshner thus highlights the need to move from communicating science to the public to communicating science with the public. "We need to change the nature of science communication from a monologue to a dialogue and listen to the public and their concerns." 

Martin Rees, a scientist: "Einstein's ideas have penetrated our culture, but few read his original works. The barrier is especially high when ideas can be fully expressed only in mathematical language. Indeed, that barrier already existed in the 17th century. Newton's greatest work, the Principia, highly mathematical and written in Latin, was heavy going even for his distinguished contemporaries such as Halley and Hooke. Other authors distilled Newton's ideas into more accessible form - as early as 1730 a book appeared entitled Newtonianism for Ladies." 

The 2005 Descartes science communication prize winner Bill Bryson to CORDIS News: "Education is the place to start. Textbooks shouldn't be written like PhD theses - there's no reason why we can't make them interesting. So much science is inherently interesting, and more effort is needed to get that across. In addition, schools should teach science to pupils in two different ways: It has to be taught seriously, to encourage more young people to become scientists, but you also need to teach 'normal' people the wonder of science - you should be getting that even if you're never going to be a scientist." His message for scientists hoping to communicate their work to the wider world is the following: "Don't lose your sense of wonder and don't forget the wow factor. It's the same in all walks of life, but for scientists, who might not be the best communicators, to forget these can be particularly tragic."

The 2004 Descartes science communication prize winner Wolfgang Heckl summarises his views on communicating science as follows: "Don't underestimate the public, don't ever give a lesson, be simple but not simplistic, and touch the audience on an emotional level and respect their emotions." He also calls for politics and science to improve the interface between science and society and thinks science centres and museums are good examples of a neutral, informal environment for public debate on science. 

states that "the media is the leading source of information for Europe's citizens and commerce worldwide. Wide coverage of European research is a basic step towards meeting the Lisbon objectives. Unfortunately Europe's performance in disseminating its research results through the mass media often fails to match the excellence of its research. Europe and the world's media is largely dominated by North American research news." 

European Science Foundation (ESF) has issued a policy paper on science communication in Europe. The document gives a series of recommendations to improve science communication at European, regional and national level. 

Since 2002, the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) awards have been given to scientists who communicate their science to the public while remaining fully active in research. The winner of the 2005 EMBO Award Professor Boncinelli: "Communicating scientific ideas to the public in a neutral way requires huge efforts, but is increasingly necessary. [...] I hope that more scientists will devote themselves to this activity, which also forces us to analyse different issues and their social implications in depth." EMBO also awards an annual Science Writing Prize for "an outstanding piece of science writing designed to communicate a topical issue to a non-scientific audience". 

EIROforum, a partnership between Europe's seven largest intergovernmental research organisations launched, in March 2006, a journal entitled Science in School to promote inspiring science teaching in Europe.

Some innovative national schemes are also trying to bridge the growing gap between scientific research and society, such as the British Council's concept called Café Scientifique. "The aim of these gatherings is to get people interested in science and the principle behind is democratic as you don't need scientific training to get involved in the discussion," said Science Officer Hervé Gouget. 

The French Ministry for Research sponsors one-minute scientific TV-programmes called 'La science avance' [science is advancing] every weekend. "The objective of this programme is to explain better the challenges of French research, its objectives and the implications for our future," states the Ministry for Research. 

Raising public awareness about science was made, in March 2006, an official part of China's national development strategy. The State Council's 15-year plan for boosting scientific literacy states that the population's lack of scientific knowledge has considerably hindered China's economic and social development.

The Shanghai Association of Science and Technology (SAST) has launched a 'Messaging Science' initiative. The aim is to improve citizens science knowledge by sending text message to their mobile phones. SAST thinks that this science communication method will have a much bigger impact than traditional ones, such as exhibitions.

The former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Dame Julia Higgins, has said that although science is funded with taxpayers' money, people have hardly any control over what research is undertaken. According to Higgins, people can thus be worried that the science they are funding could actually be developing technologies that could harm them.

According to SciDevNet,  a web portal on news, views and information about science, technology and the developing world, the vice-president of the China Association for Science and Technology, Hu Qiheng, says that science communication is crucial for building and maintaining a country's innovation capacity and is of particular importance to developing countries as "through effective science communication, limited research programmes can be enjoyed by as many people as possible". She thinks that improving science communication requires both highly creative talent and a system that encourages the free flow of scientific information.

"The World Federation of Science journalists (WFSJ) has the potential to play a vital role in helping bride the gap between science and society by bringing together journalists from around the world," said Véronique Morin, former President of WFSJ, who also highlights the role a world federation can play in enhancing accurate and quality reporting in science and in encouraging good ethical practices in the field.

The American National Association of Science Writers (NASW): "No one can doubt the immense impact of science and technology on society today. We face the challenges of not only understanding the current multiple revolutions in science and technology, but also how they affect the future of humanity and of the Earth. The most important single information source for the public about science and technology is the media. Thus, helping science journalists to produce factual, intelligible, timely information is critically important to society. "

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