Making Sense of Science Communication: a history and review

I recently attended a lecture given by Peter Broks at the University of Nottingham’s Institute of Science and Society.  Peter is a Lecturer at Hereford College of Arts and has had a keen interest in popular science and science communication.  Peter’s talk was a reflection on the history of science communication in the UK, the approaches used and associated problems.  More information can be found at his blog.

Peter began by describing the changing relationship between science and society since the late 19th century. Science at the height of the Enlightenment was characterised by significant public participation, the “Republic of Science”, even if the extent of participation was limited by the lack of education amongst the wider, unskilled population. By the end of the 19th Century, however, science became increasingly professionalised and aligned with the interests of government, a trend which has continued ever since. The relationship between science and the public was now characterised by scientists communicating to a “scientifically illiterate” population (often referred to as the deficit model).

In the UK, the modern approach to science communication began with the Bodmer report of 1985 and the Public Understanding of Science model (PUS). Broks described PUS as the “shout louder” approach, akin to the English tourist in a Spanish bar with no knowledge of the local language. Post-2000 and the House of Lords’ Jenkin report “Science and Society”, the model changed to Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST). Although the aim was to improve interactions between scientists and the public, engagement was still on the scientists’ terms and reflected only a minor change from the deficit model of PUS (Broks described it as “shout louder and listen for the echo”).

So what did Broks consider wrong with both PUS and PEST?  Firstly, they start with the assumption that the public is the “problem”, and consider communication as a one way dialogue from scientists to the public. The public then has to accept the message on the scientists’ terms, with no true engagement or dialogue. Furthermore, the deficit model is convenient for funders and practitioners as it lends itself to obtaining quantifiable impacts with little attention given to how meaning is affected by context. Further thoughts can be found on Peter’s own blog and this personal perspective on the history of PUS by Walter Bodmer. Both the Bodmer and Jenkin report are available in pdf forms online.

Peter brought up the Twitter spat between some social scientists and scientists that raged after the Cox/Ince editorial in the New Statesman magazine, and the irritated response of many scientists to the criticism that went the way of Cox and Ince. (This was first experience of the sometimes open warfare between scientists and social scientists around the relationship between science and wider society). Perhaps the best reflection on the whole matter came from Brigitte Nerlich:

“Both sides accused each other of arrogance, for sometimes good reasons, which widened the perceived gap between them, while in fact they are really just two sides of the same coin. If they listened to each other and were willing to learn from each other instead of squabbling, the research and practice of ‘science communication’ across all disciplines may become as vital as science and as vital as communication.”

So why is it that some scientists are a little disparaging towards those that study “science communication”? Is it simply academic parochialism between scientists and non-scientists, practitioners and theorists? Peter Broks suggested that the only conversation scientists wanted to have with social scientists was around how to make their communication methods more effective. The implication was that “effective” was solely linked to outcomes favourable to the scientist, hardly surprising if, as Broks argues, public engagement with science is done on science’s terms. Does “effective” require further definition? It may simply be to make a public more receptive to science, raise funding and increase the student uptake of STEM courses. Do the scientists who participate in science communication seek only to achieve these goals, or do they have other motives? Perhaps, as scientists by nature are problem-solvers, this might explain why some get frustrated with the more reflective approach offered by those studying science communication and related disciplines.  This frustration may be amplified if the scientists taking part in science communication/public engagement do so voluntary, above (and beyond?) an already busy and stretched set of responsibilities.

The last part of Peter’s talk discussed the future of science communication and how it will be affected by the internet and social media.  At this time, it is probably too early to see what long terms trends will arise from these new forums, or how the move to Open Access will make an impact.  Will we see a revival of the Enlightenment’s Republic of Science (or Citizen Science as it is often now referred to)? Beyond amateur astronomers and naturalists, can the public lead or participate in science discourse? Examples of online public participation already exist, e.g. Galaxy Zoo and Foldit, yet these are still top-down approaches. Recent Periodic Table of Videos have been made in direct response to the comments and requests of the audience and social media has exposed some of the trade secrets of researchers. There also signs that social media is challenging the internal hierarchy of science, even if such conversations are between scientists themselves and not scientists and the public. Clearly, the internet does allow “outsiders” to debate the methods, motives and conclusions of science in public.  It may also let scientists hugely expand their networks while overturning preconceptions about their fields.   Whatever the results will be, the internet and social media will surely become integral in how future relationships between scientists and the public develop.

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11 Responses to Making Sense of Science Communication: a history and review

  1. Brigitte says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! Would say more but have to hop on an early train!

  2. Helen says:

    Thanks for the great report, Alasdair – I was disappointed to miss Peter Broks’ talk. You might also be interested to look into the most famous and a more recent elaboration of the concept of the ‘republic of science’, by the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi in 1962 (here’s an open access version Though Polanyi’s vision is not something I would promote, it has been both controversial and influential, and he offers a very different take on the ‘republic of science’ than you report here. His vision is of a community of scientists operating completely outside of the reach of society’s unhelpful interventions, with no need for even communication or justification to the wider public. Thus, I was quite surprised when you characterised citizen science as the new version of the republic of science! Interesting to see how concepts travel and evolve.

  3. Thanks for doing this report. It seems to make more sense than I felt I was making at the time. There was so much I wanted to expand on especially the last part about the internet and social media. The key point for me is how internet use is increasingly built around user-generated content and I think it would be interesting to see how that could translate as “user-generated science”. This might open up exciting possibilities for those engaged in PE, but equally it could open up user-generated content that many might not even recognise as “science”. In either case the meaning of “popular science” would be contested (perhaps in ways reminiscent of the early-nineteenth century). Similarly, user-generated science might be reminiscent of the Republic of Science that is examined by Susan Sheets-Pyenson (don’t know how to do hyperlinks in comments but here’s the reference: Sheets-Pyenson, S. (1985) Popular Science Periodicals in Paris and London: the emergence of a low scientific culture, 1820-1875, Annals of Science, 42: 549-72.

    • Warren Pearce says:

      This links with the last para here, and my work on climate science sceptics, many of whom are scientifically literate and curious, albeit with interest piqued by the policy implications of the science. Online discussions are not what is typically referred to as popular science, but actually technical discussion of scientific papers between members of the public with occasional interactions with professional scientists.

      This is a different form of PE than what is typically thought about. Citizen-generated science?

    • Ali TT says:

      When I heard you talk about user-generated “science” online, my first thoughts went to “lapsed” scientists- i.e. those retired or moved into other professions but have had their interest rekindled by hearing about a particular science story in the news. Perhaps in the past their only outlet has been in the letter pages of professional magazines?

      Re “it could open up user-generated content that many might not even recognise as “science”.” Presumably this would not be a new phenomenon, just a new medium for the outcomes of the material to be disseminated? That line also brings up thoughts of arguments around alternative medicine…

  4. Yes, when we enter the realms of “popular science” (not just PE) one of the most important areas of contest is what gets to be called “science” in the first place and who polices that label. With user-generated content the problem faced by the established scientific community is how to control the meaning of “science”. As I tried to explain in my talk, it is only since the second half of the nineteenth century that “popular science” has come to mean the science that the public get given. Both PUS and PE both seem to continue that tradition. By contrast science that is public driven and user-generated would be less controlled and therefore probably more frightening for many scientists. In discussion after the talk I did raise the question of whether the real problem was not that the public don’t trust scientists but that scientists don’t trust the public.

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  6. Chloé says:

    Thank you for this insightful article! It reminds me of a successful natural experiment by Lane et al (2011) on flood risk management. They created a research group of 5 scientists (hydrologists, physicists) and 8 lay-people to discuss flood risk in the town of Pickering, Yorkshire. And they came up with an actual theoretical model! Of course it’s not applicable everywhere or for everything, but I think their approach is interesting and shows that it is possible to do serious, rigorous science involving the public.

    Here’s the paper:

    • Ali TT says:

      Thanks for the link Chloe, looks an interesting study. Seems to break the perceived barrier between local knowledge and scientific expertise.

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