Science PR is not democratic empowerment! (9/8/2005)

A very interesting discussion has been taking placeon a list to do with the public communication of science.

The discussion was triggered by a request to Listmembers for advice from Emanuella Chagas Jaguar <[email protected]> from the Ministry of Science and Technology of Brazil, who works in the Department of Popularization and Diffusion of Science and Technology where they have been discussing "the possibility of implementing a law of Popularization of Science in Brazil."

If you're struck in the comments below by the hectoring tones of Michael Kenward who describes himself as "ABSW e-minder", it may be useful to know that ABSW is the Association of British Science Writers, an organisation which has Dame Bridget Ogilvie, the Deputy Chair of the controversial pro-GM lobby group Sense about Science, for its President, and Pallab Ghosh for its Chairman.

For more on Ghosh: http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=203

For more on Ogilvie:

Further information about the psci-com discussion list, including its list archive for the unedited mails the material below is drawn from, can be found at the list web site:

From: Dr Adam Nieman
Sent: 09 August 2005 
Subject: Re: Law of Popularization of Science

Any country developing popularisation policy must build a clear distinction between public relations and democratic empowerment into any legislation. It is tempting to think that it is the mere quantity of science communication that is important, and not to reflect on the motivation for communicating science. However, there are many different reasons people choose to engage the public with science.

This may sound obvious, but policy in the United Kingdom has tended in the past to assume that all and any science communication meets all and any purpose - be it informing citizens, increasing the science budget, educating the next generation of scientists, or whatever. Clarity about the communicator's agenda is not generally a priority in science communication, but it should be.

Public relations and democratic empowerment are not the same. In fact, they are totally different but in the United Kingdom at least, science communication is dominated by public relations and marketing departments. They do good work but the fact that they are not always clear about their motivation has caused and continues to cause serious problems. Ironically, the extent to which the public trusts science has suffered as a result.

The twisted logic goes like this: science is good; therefore any initiative that helps people to see that science is good will help people to make rational decisions about science. No! Even if you accept uncritically the premise that science is good, you can only advance debate by being crystal clear about where your own interests lie.

For an example of the kind of disingenuous science communication I'm talking about, take Walter Bodmer, one of the founding fathers of the public understanding of science [PUS] movement in the UK. 10 years ago at the Edinburgh Science Festival he argued that, "to understand genetics is to understand that scientists must be allowed to patent genes". No! Patents are politics.

Bodmer was conflating two very different ways of 'understanding'. (If I disagree with Bodmer that genes are strings of DNA, you could say I have not understood genetics; but what if I disagree with him about patents for genes?)

It would be fine to advocate patenting genes and to put forward an argument for it. It would even be OK for a research council such as the BBSRC [Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council] to pay for the public relations effort required to change the legislation if they thought it was important to the community they represent. But if they pretended that in so doing they were 'sharing science' rather than competing with their detractors, they would be doing a grave dis-service to the public understanding of science.

The greater emphasis on 'dialogue' in science communication helps a great deal, but the communicator's agenda could still be clearer in most popularisation efforts.

Dr Adam Nieman
5 Glendale
Bristol BS8 4PN
+44 (0)7764 197151
[email protected]

From: Michael Kenward [email protected]
Subject: Re: Law of Popularization of Science

Lots of unsubstantiated assertions in this message which describes a parallel world from that which I inhabit.

Any chance that you could back it up with some examples or some other evidence beyond opinion?

In particular, I am puzzled by the statement that "Clarity about the communicator's agenda is not generally a priority in science communication, but it should be." That view harks back to the PUS [Public Understanding of Science] days, a decade or so ago. And even then only a small band of old fogeys really took that line, which is why it lasted about 10 minutes.

Michael Kenward
ABSW e-minder
Editor, The Science Reporter

Date: Tue, 9 Aug 2005
From: Adam <[email protected]> Subject: Re: Law of Popularization of Science [ ]


...I stand by the assertion that clarity about the communicator's agenda is not generally a priority in science communication.

...I was deliberately 'harking back to the old PUS days' because that's when the UK started to grapple with building science communication into

government policy. Brazil can learn a lot from what the UK went through a decade ago. If they don't learn from our history, I fear they are doomed to repeat it.

It's a bit disingenuous to dismiss the PUS mov

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