Science communicators do it for the public

Science communicators do it for the public

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

At the British Science Association Science Communication Conference today (16 May) several sessions touched upon the importance of scientists accepting the significance of values, principles, and ideologies – their own and those of their ‘publics’. I was grateful for this, and particularly for Alice Bell’s contributions on the panel of a session on policy called ‘Hail to the Chief [Scientific Advisor]’.

Why do I say grateful? Well, it’s long been a bugbear of mine, this idea that scientists are supposed to be infallible, rational, and god-like in their ability to speak gospel truths. Alice began her talk by questioning the extent to which our way of arranging ourselves in hierarchies gets in the way of really effective decision making in science policy. I agree. And it’s not just a problem for science, it’s a problem for public life, and it’s rooted, in my opinion, in a paradoxical lack of personal responsibility in a world that is all about individual success.

What I observe in myself and in others is that we are always looking around for who’s in charge, or whose job it is, or how do we get permission, or whatever. At best this results in procrastination and at worst it actually prevents social, political and economic progress.

Alice talked about how important it is that scientists are aware of and acknowledge, or, as she said, “own” their own politics and ideologies. And again, I couldn’t agree more, but the challenge we have is that most people do not think of themselves as having an ideology and most of us do not consider ourselves “political”. In fact, if anything, being ‘political’ is something that you apparently can be too much of – calling someone ‘political’ is like calling them ‘aggressive’ or ‘smelly’. The truth is everything we do is political and we all hold dear our ideologies but admitting that would be admitting responsibility for the status quo or, indeed, being at the source of change.

Take the current flavour of capitalism that we are operating within in the UK, for example. Ask any relatively intelligent person to name a political ideology and you can bet they’ll say “communism” or “anarchism” or “fascism”, and all but a very few would label what we have now as an ideology. Of course, capitalism is just as much an ideology but it suits us to view it otherwise. Consider that calling capitalism an ideology is not making a moral judgement about capitalism but it does call on us to be responsible for our opinions, ideas, and our choice to buy into and operate within the system it invites.

In the Q&A session I asked Alice for advice to help me sell the idea of contextualising science in this way to senior scientists. She responded with what should have been a no-brainer to me – stand up for your profession and do it for the public – but I, like many of my peers, get tempted into being what Alice refers to as a ‘handmaiden’ for science.

There’s two sides to that story, of course. It’s true that science communicators can be short sighted, and often we start out as scientists and so tend to see things from the point of view of scientific institutions first and the general public second. At the same time many of my science communication colleagues experience pernicious disrespect for their skills, knowledge, and professionalism in organisations where unless you are made of strong stuff, a ‘science-led’ communications strategy so easily turns you into ghost writer of grant application impact statements and host to foreign scientific dignitaries.

Alice is right, though, we are the only people who can change this – our senior science colleagues are not going to suddenly respect our professional opinions and experience just because. We are agents of change, often in organisations that are resistant to change, and for those dealing with the most recalcitrant paymasters the support of peers is vital.

So perhaps at next year’s conference we should have a session on how to be an advocate for professional science communication and take full responsibility for the change you want to see in your organisation?

Comments

Hi Nancy, cheers for this article for those of us who couldn't make the session!

I was wondering, who are the people who have the "idea that scientists are supposed to be infallible, rational, and god-like in their ability to speak gospel truths"? I mean, I'm a scientist at ICL, and know quite a few scientists, and this is probably the last thing any of us think! (of course, I can't speak for the whole scientific community) In fact, most scientists I know are humbled by how little they know, relative to the scope of what they could know. And with that, they certainly don't overstep their knowledge boundaries, and are confident to say 'actually, I don't have an answer to that'.

So yeah, just wondering whose opinion/idea this was you were voicing!

Cheers!

Hi Jon, Thanks for asking for clarification. My experience of the community of scientists is exactly as you describe. In fact, sometimes when it comes to scicomm, researchers could afford to promote their expertise beyond the very niche area of their everyday research. In this scenario, quite specifically, I was thinking about the role of scientific advice in policy making. So the people who hold the view are various publics outside the scientific community. The point I think Alice was getting at was about the extent to which this encourages a hierarchy in policy making where only those who are elected as the most expert experts get to contribute. My view is that this not only excludes others with expertise or otherwise important views and opinions but it actually feeds into a culture we have where we are reluctant to take responsibility for how our world looks. I hope that answers your query!

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