Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Perception Puzzle

In our last blog, we talked about how public perceptions on science, scientists, and scientific research are hugely varied and a lot depends on the personal, cultural, organizational, or societal context within which each individual lives and views the world. As on every aspect of scientific research, public perceptions on animal experimentation vary according to individual contexts.

In a forthcoming piece in Public Understanding of Science, Fabienne Crettaz von Roten, shares some interesting findings on a multi-country research on ‘Public perceptions of animal experimentation across Europe’. Perhaps, not surprisingly, there is greater acceptance of research on mice but opinions on research on dogs and monkeys are a lot more divided. The research shows that “men, older people, and tertiary educated people are more likely to accept animal experimentation” than others. But then, the research also shows that general acceptance of animal experimentation in at least nine European countries had “significantly dropped” between 2005 and 2010.

Clearly, the issue of perception is a complex one. For one, perceptions are not necessarily stable and then they vary according to external inputs, including cultural, political, economic, and medical imperatives. Public engagement with science is, therefore, an increasingly complex and challenging process.

In line with the objectives of forums such PUS, the National Academy of Sciences in the US is organizing a two-day colloquium on The Science of Science Communication in Washington, DC, on 21 and 22 May, 2012. The colloquium will, as its organizers say, provide an opportunity to “scientists to improve their understanding of the public” and “for communication practitioners to enhance their knowledge of the state of the science”.

A greater and more fluid interaction between scientists and communication practitioners, as well as with what is called the “lay public”, would go a long way in closing the perception gap. One pathway to a collaborative approach, according to physicist-turned-writer and a protagonist for collaborative science, Michael Nielsen, is “Open Science”. See also a Q&A session with him on the TED Blog.

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