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Science communication: why science is becoming more and more public

Science needs publicity. Publicly funded research has to account for its projects – internally as well as externally. In the past, accounting for projects was a matter dealt with in courtly or academic circles, today the forum is research journals. This "internal" communication seldom reaches the public; however, external communication seeks out the wider (lay) audience - for many reasons.

What is the place of science in society? What is the status of the reciprocal relationship between science and the public? Science is becoming increasingly more significant in our post-industrial developed world. Sociologists (Weingart, Beck, Giddens) refer to this phenomenon as the “scientification” of society: there is hardly any area of life that has not been touched by systematic and controlled reflexion.

Industry is the heaviest investor

Industry is increasingly investing in R&D. (Photograph: Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft)
Industry is increasingly investing in R&D. (Photograph: Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft)
Science is no longer limited to natural law and its exploration. Since way back, research has been taking place outside the ivory towers of universities, in numerous institutes, companies or non-governmental organisations. Although only a quarter of all scientific literature is authored by industry researchers – in Germany the non-academic sector invests more than double the amount compared to the academic sector in research and development, predominantly in product development and patents.

Outside the ivory tower

A group of pupils listening to a presentation.
Pupils are the preferred target group of science communication. (Photograph: University of Ulm)
Science has crossed the previously distinct boundaries of individual disciplines. Interdisciplinarity has become a keyword in science policy. This has involved a fundamental change in the function of science. Gone are the times when the public audience for science consisted of the scientific community itself and, after many years isolated in a laboratory, a researcher would step into the bright lights of the public sphere. A recently published study (DOI:10.1126/science.1157780) has shown that the opposite is now the case: many leading researchers have conquered their fear of media contact.

Science is socialised

Today, society as a whole is the public audience for science, and its expectations are huge: the government requires advice, expects jobs (innovation) to be created and future prosperity to be safeguarded and reaps the benefits of funded research. For many industrial sectors, knowledge has become a desirable, patentable object. The media increasingly focuses on science. In a certain sense, science has become socialised.

Increasingly faster, bigger and ... unmanageable

Growing faster than other areas of society, science’s knowledge base is doubling every 15 years. This changes the very identity of science and also influences everything around it (Weingart, 30 et seq.). Science is becoming more and more unmanageable: the German Research Foundation has identified 201 different subjects, the Science Citation Index names 250 categories and around 7,500 journals. Science is specialising more and more within itself as well as creating new disciplines. The unity of disciplines is disintegrating. This fragmentation becomes palpable in the dynamic biosciences’ tendency to use –omics- suffixes.

Distant yet omnipresent

Through its growing specialisation, science is increasingly distancing itself from the lay public’s ability to comprehend. On the other hand, what sociologists term “scientification of society” means that more and more aspects of society itself are being scientifically analysed, which reduces the gap between science and society. Prime examples of this are environmental science, climate and risk research.

Integrated or instrumentalised?

In the public political discourse, science is often used as a source of legitimacy. No one single person can possibly have an overall grasp of the information from all the scientific consulting panels, commissions, technology assessment academies or think tanks. In Germany, the pattern of debate has, at last, in the discussion on the effects of nuclear energy yielded a new culture of experts and “anti-experts”.

More knowledge means more ignorance

On the one hand knowledge has become democratised. On the other hand it has increased the degree of insecurity because scientific legitimacy is threatening to become lost in the expert debate. Immense knowledge production and the resulting new technologies also have a flipside: they increase the ignorance, insecurity and risks that define the boundaries of expert knowledge, of science. Without biomedical progress, the debate on the exact moment that human life begins would never have arisen.

European surveys (Special Eurobarometer 224, 2005) on the relationship of the population to the uses and risks of science have shown that knowledge societies have developed a critically informed relationship to science. Because the public are directly affected by the risks created by new knowledge and new technologies, they want to be part of the decision making process.

Promoting trust and approval

The logical consequence for science is that it must gain the trust and the approval of the public. In the United States, this began with the campaign “Public Understanding of Science”, and was further developed in Germany with the initiative “Science in Dialogue” and continued on a European level with guidelines on expert opinion polls (White Paper on Democratic Governance). “Round tables” and consensus conferences also came into being. However, all these forums lack democratic legitimacy. They are criticised by sociologists of science, among others, as being mere public orchestrations of the dialogue between experts and laypersons.

No way around the media

The media have developed a key, maybe even decisively significant role for a scientific community that is courting attention. The advantage of media-based communication for the scientific community is fast and mass diffusion of information. However, the scientific community realises that this communication channel is not without risks as scientists lose the power of interpretation when scientific journalists do what they have to do: view critically, without ever looking through the PR-tinted glasses of research institutions, keeping a holistic view, understanding science with all its biases and being the first to ask “cui bono”.
One thing is sure: as a result of all this, science has lost its special social status.
Science communication aims to make issues in research and teaching accessible to a wider public. In this process, science communication itself has become an object of basic research (DFG Priority Programme 1409: Science and the General Public: Understanding Fragile and Conflicting Scientific Evidence). When (non-)university institutions reach out to (sections of the) public via PR offices, this results in an increasingly broad range of public relations media from science television (e.g. DFG Science TV) to press releases.

Orchestrated science “events”

Universities are turning towards the public, here at the Summer Science Camp at the University of Ulm. (Photograph: University of Ulm)
Universities are turning towards the public, here at the Summer Science Camp at the University of Ulm. (Photograph: University of Ulm)
Science is increasingly orchestrated through elaborate events. Such events can take place on research boats, biotech trucks, science centres, “kids’ universities” or science summer camps. The Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft’s PUSH initiative is one such example. Founded in 1999 in order to intensify the dialogue between society and science, the initiative led to the programme “Science in Dialogue”.

Competing for resources and attention

“It’s the economy, stupid”, was the successful slogan of the presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. Development over the last few years could be summarised in a similar fashion: A major political economisation of large parts of society that was not just restricted to science. As a consequence this means that the scientific community has to be increasingly answerable to non-scientific laws quite apart from the genuinely intrinsically scientific logic (progress in knowledge; good teaching methods). A competition for resources and attention has begun that increasingly pays lip service to the fetish of “application” and appears to push to one side basic research and everything that is not economically viable.

Hettwer, Holger; Lehmkuhl, Markus et al. (ed.), WissensWelten. Wissenschaftsjournalismus in Theorie und Praxis, Bertelsmann Publishing House Foundation, Gütersloh 2008, see articles by Peter Weingart, Wissen ist Macht? – Facetten der Wissensgesellschaft, p. 25 et seq.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/science-communication-why-science-is-becoming-more-and-more-public