Thursday, 31 July 2014

Reflections on science and the public

Sue Howard

In balmy, beautiful, complicated Salvador, the 13th conference of the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network got underway recently with speakers from Nigeria, Brazil, Columbia and South Africa (along with jazz trumpet to lift the soul).

Luisa Massarani introduced the conference noting the relationship between science communication and development, and it seemed to me that here in Salvador, Brazil, there was a sense of optimism about the relationship between science and the public(s).

From the get go, the theme of social inclusion was paramount, with questions raised about changing the 'white male face of science'. Efforts along these lines continued throughout. I saw Luz Lazos Ramirez and colleagues from the Universidad Autonoma de la Ciudad de Mexico present their work on sharing tailored technology with the indigenous peoples of Mexico – the 'recipients' of knowledge and technology have become the designers of technology to suit their own needs and desires.

Andrea Berardi (Open University, UK) and colleagues also take a 'from the ground up' approach to explore communities' own adaptations to climate change, using visual modes to communicate with indigenous peoples in the Guiana Shield. The audience acknowledged that here he was, pale and male, introducing this research, but appreciated the effort to honour the knowledge, resourcefulness and responsibilities of a local Guianan community.

There were several presentations looking at the fractious relationships between science, policy and the media. I found interesting the efforts of Jenny Bjorkman (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, Sweden) and Melanie Smallman (UCL, UK) to get policy makers to pay attention to social scientists – it seems they need an interpreter, their languages and cultures are so different. This explains a lot about governance not using the information available to them, even when they themselves commission the research.

The subject of science and the media seems to bring up the old concerns about one blaming the other for an uneasy relationship. Looking at this relationship, Sharon Dunwoody (University of Wisconsin-Madison, US) pointed to the incredible slowness of cultural change, while Simon Lock's (UCL, UK) neuro engagement research demonstrated the same.

Meanwhile, science journalists continue to suffer censorship, directly from governments or indirectly via scientists self censoring because of fear of repercussions. Science journalists Mohammed Yahia and Ochien Ogodo were able to tell us about the Egyptian and Kenyan contexts. The gravity of this topic is utmost: the highest stakes are potential loss of life, as discussed by a representative of Article 19.

In the conference culture, that the deficit model is to be avoided, was almost a given, at least it seemed so to me. Thus, Steve Miller and Susanna Priest, at a plenary, provoking the question about whether it's not so bad to acknowledge different levels of informedness, and to concern ourselves with levelling the playing field, met with a rather frosty response. All these considerations and more prompted Martin Bauer, Editor in Chief of Public Understanding of Science, to create an essay competition for the journal, asking contributors to answer "In Science Communication, why does the idea of a public deficit always return?"

And finally, science communication blogs are a good thing. Are they? Sometimes social media efforts offered by organisations seem like big old adverts, or not so far from the much disparaged deficit model efforts of old, disseminating information with the hope of fostering positive attitudes; maybe that's not such a great use of social media.

Plus, Massimiano Bucchi asked the plenary panel of Dominique Brossard and Mohammed Yahia to comment on a highly charged issue: for all of the effort of blogging, tweeting, engaging and good science communication citizenship on the net, done with good will, for free, are we quietly contributing to the vast incomes of underlying structures? Are these 'big society' efforts unwittingly giving faceless money making machines 'big profits'?