This month’s blog by Dr. Elizabeth Stevenson examines the role of science communication and public engagement in empowering the public to critically engage with scientific issues, enabling them to make informed choices and decisions – and crucially, to ask the key questions. In this piece, she argues that good science communication isn’t just about disseminating the key issues in accessible ways, rather, science communication has a fundamental role to play in enabling open, informed and participative discussion of complex, societal issues.
Inspired by last semester’s ‘Fracking’ reading group and intrigued by several mentions of the need for a practice by which accurate, accessible information about fracking can be disseminated, I was galvanised into action to write this blog about the roles which science communication and public engagement can play.
Science communication as a practice is all about making science accessible to public audiences who have varying degrees of knowledge, understanding and interest in science. At the fundamental level, science communication requires the ability to take complex scientific concepts, research topics and issues and present them in an accurate yet accessible format. It’s not about ‘dumbing down’ or being selective about the information or ideas communicated. For example in his blog about fracking, David Reay gives an accurate yet simplified description of fracking. His description contained nowhere near the level of detail to be found in a scientific research paper, nor did it contain inordinate amounts of unexplained jargon. His description was accessible, understandable and contained the main points and the big ideas in fracking. This defines one of the key principles in science communication i.e. accurate communication of the key concept, the big idea, the main issue and not every last detail.
However, science communication offers more than the provision of accurate scientific knowledge. Continuing with the theme of fracking, one of the main concerns around fracking is not about what we know but about what we don’t yet know. For example the level of uncertainty about potential short and longer term damage to local environments where fracking is taking place. However, fracking does not have a monopoly on uncertainty in science. All scientific knowledge and technological advance is subject to varying degrees of uncertainty in terms of both the scientific knowledge itself and around the political, economic and societal consequences when this knowledge is applied in innovative technologies in societal contexts. During the process of innovation there will inevitably be uncertainties and yet this issue of uncertainty is not fully understood by public audiences. The question is not ‘do we know everything? ’It is ‘do we know enough? ’Or ‘how can we best make a decision using what we do know?’ and ‘What else do we need to consider?’ I would argue that one of the roles of science communication is to empower publics to ask these critical questions.
Finally we need a ‘safe space’ where these conversations can take place. Another role of science communication (and public engagement) is to create the opportunities, the facilitation expertise and ‘spaces’ conducive to achieving productive discussions between scientists, industrialists, publics and policy-makers. The framing of the discussion questions is key to ensure that the discourse is not polarised from the outset (e.g. fracking vs a ban on fracking). Instead, questions can framed to enable productive dialogue. For example by asking the question ‘Under what conditions could fracking be acceptable?’ can enable exploration of the subject rather than defence of entrenched positions.
Therefore I return to my original title and argue that science communication and public engagement with science have a role far beyond communicating factoids. This role encompasses informing publics, empowering them to critically engage with scientific knowledge and issues and enabling constructive dialogues to take place.
Dr Elizabeth Stevenson is the Programme Director of the MSc Science Communication and Public Engagement at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD is in chemistry and she has over fifteen years of experience in the field of science communication.