There has been an ongoing debate within the field of science communication about how best to communicate science to the public. The traditional method of the deficit model has been pitted against the newer model of Dialogue.
The House of Lords report on Science and Society in 2000 (House of Lords: Science and Technology Committee 2000) found that while science was both exciting and full of opportunities, the public’s confidence in scientific advice to government, and the advance of technology was lacking.
The committee noted that “there is a new mood for dialogue and debate, to which existing institutions must respond and in many cases are already responding.”
In response to the report David Dickson noted that the public has always been uneasy about scientific progress, and in some cases, understandably wary. In his comment “The Need for a Third Way”, he points out that dialogue in and of itself is not always useful. The honesty of those involved in the dialogue come into play.
“The report says that resistance ‘whether well-founded or misguided’ on the part of the public ‘may inhibit technological progress.’(Dickson 2000)” The implication being that the need for public dialogue is not so much about ensuring the public are educated and understand science, but that they do not stand in the way of progress. He concludes that this is a “process of ‘dumbing down’ here that, while enabling a form of dialogue to take place between science and its public remains opaque to a genuine understanding of the processes by which science is developed and applied.”
The idea that this new communication by dialogue may be unequal, or disingenuous, is raised by Pieter Maeseele in his article on Science and Technology in a mediatized and democratized society. He argues that the move to have more engagement and participation within science communication often serves “as a rhetorical tool or a ‘politics of talk’ in policy documents, instead of being characteristic of a wider philosophical shift.”(Maeseele 2007)
He also notes that the move to engage the public is designed more to ensure progress, both scientific and economic, and lists some of the issues with this, notably that it assumes that all “economic and social benefits of innovation are obvious and agreed” and in addition if economics is always called to assist science it reduces all dialogue to “the calculus of economic growth or risk assessment”.
His conclusion that most science communication programs exist to “serve only to adapt the self-preservation of the scientific institution rather than to question its forms of power and social control”, is worrying. If there is a genuine desire for dialogue, it should be on the understanding that all parties to it are equal and have opinions that should be given due thought. It should not be an exercise in rubber stamping decisions already made.
Some institutions, and indeed countries, have taken the step to get the public genuinely involved in the communication, and decision making process, within science. Denmark, under the 2003 University act, made science communication an obligation for universities, in addition to research and teaching. According to Kristian Nielsen, this is intended to make universities more socially accountable and also to attract more students to science.
This opening up of science communication has led to some interesting innovations within Denmark. Nielsen’s 2005 article for the Journal of Science Communication focuses on a number of these, most notably consensus conferences, the Danish model of the science café and the gamification of communication.
Each of the above look at the communication of science as more than just scientists talking. The Science Cafés of Denmark take people from diverse backgrounds and allow them to engage on a particular science topic, often with a vague title. According to Nielsen, “the subjects cut across traditional dividing lines between disciplines and involve scientists, engineers, politicians and artists.” (Nielsen 2005)
The consensus conferences involve two preparatory weekends for the lay citizens involved prior to the four conference days. As a result the citizens can study the topic thoroughly before formulating their opinions on it.
Nielsen concludes that “the Danish science communication system is a growing awareness of the importance of two-ways communication between scientists and citizens”.
The rise of dialogue within science and within science communication is a good thing. However it is important that rather than using it to approve of decisions already made, it is used to engage in a proper discussion about science and technology and the impact they can have on the environment and society.
Increasing the scientific literacy of the public is often cited as the reason for the move from the deficit model to one of dialogue or public engagement. The traditional deficit model is often described in terms of the hypodermic needle. That a shot of science education can inoculate a public against pseudoscience or fear of progress. That if only the public understood science, they would be more inclined to fund it.
Alan Irwin, in his article: From deficit to democracy, argues that science communication needs to be more than that, but that the deficit model has its place. He notes, “Deficits are fundamental to many forms of communication and as such can never be discarded”. In a later paragraph he points out that public engagement should involve “new stories to tell about engagement, stories which connect issues large and small and which confront us with both the challenges and the possibilities”.(Irwin 2014)
This acknowledgement that Public engagement with science is not an easy one-size-fits-all solution is useful. Likewise there should be an acknowledgement of why the public should engage with science. In their article, Scientific Literacy as collective praxis, Roth & Lee state that “Individuals do well without knowing science, because, as an integral part of social life, they have access to different levels of expertise whenever they need it”.
Their point is not to denigrate the position of science in society, but more to say, that if we want people to engage with science, it should not be at a “school-like fact level”. They argue that is necessary to integrate science with the everyday. In particular they say that science should be taught as socio-political. “Citizen-science is a form of science that relates in reflexive ways the concerns, interests and activities of citizens. Science education is no longer separate from the concerns of the community”. (Roth and Lee 2002) It is when science is woven into the fabric of community life that engagement is most successful. In fact Roth and Lee note that “it is more important that citizens care for and are engaged in scientific conversations than whether or not and how many do well in a test of scientific literacy”.
The first place a person may engage with science is within the bounds of the school curriculum. It is here that educators have to walk a fine line between educating their students and not turning them off a subject. By concentrating too much on rote fact learning, the less motivated may tune out and decide that science is not for them. As Steven Turner said in his 2008 article for Public Understanding of Science, “the current science curriculum is too detailed, information-rich, fast-paced and monotonous in delivery, so that too many students are discouraged from pursuing science past compulsory years.”(Turner 2008)
It is these students that public engagement initiatives should target. Initiatives such as the ‘Educate in Science and Technology’ project attempt to do just that. It allows for hands on learning within a local science museum, with lessons integrated with the classroom. EST was set up in order to connect with young people who were otherwise indifferent towards science and technological studies.(Xanthoudaki et al. 2007)
Xanthoudaki et al conducted a review of the project for the Journal of Science Communication. They noted that the goal was “not to provide mere ‘recipes’ of science activities to replicate, but to build skills and knowledge in teachers and students which can be used more widely both at school and in everyday life”. This objective ties in with the findings of Roth and Lee. The weaving of science into the everyday and out of the laboratory can positively impact engagement with science.
The results of the review showed “how the three-part unit model produces positive learning outcomes when explicit links are established between the content of the museum, the classroom activities and the school curriculum.”
If we want a public engaged with science, we have to let people look at science and technology from all angles and not just from the position of scientist, or indeed, science educator. There needs to be a willingness for science to engage back.
Dickson, D. 2000. Science and its public: The need for a "third way". Social Studies of Science, 30(6), pp.917.
House of Lords: Science and Technology Committee 2000. Science and technology: Third report. Science and Technology Committee publications: House Of Lords.
Irwin, A. 2014. From deficit to democracy (re-visited). Public Understanding of Science, 23(1), pp.71.
Maeseele, P. 2007. Science and technology in a mediatized and democratized society. Journal of Science Communication, 6(1),
Nielsen, K.H. 2005. Between understanding and appreciation: Current science communication in denmark. Journal of Science Communication, 4(4),
Roth, W. and Lee, S. 2002. Scientific literacy as collective praxis. Public Understanding of Science, 11(33),
Turner, S. 2008. School science and its controversies: Or, whatever happened to scientific literacy. Public Understanding of Science, 17(1), pp.55.
Xanthoudaki, M., Tirelli, B., Cerutti, P. and Calcagnini, S. 2007. Museums for science education: Can we make the difference? the case of the EST. Journal of Science Communication, 6(2),