DFID/UNESCO International Workshop on Science Communication - 3-5 July 2000, London
The Workshop Report by Jenny Gristock, SPRU
The delegates of the World Conference on Science argued that reducing this gap is not just a matter of creating more scientific knowledge and better information infrastructures. It also about ensuring that scientific knowledge is put to good use by the many different communities around the world - citizens, policymakers, scientists, industrialists - who may, or may not, have had a scientific training. But if knowledge is to be put to good use, it has to be made meaningful to the communities who could potentially make use of it.
A critical link in the chain of development is therefore the work of science communicators, who have the skills and capabilities to create the engagement that is necessary for the good use of scientific knowledge, by making it meaningful to communities in very different local, practical and cultural contexts.
In Budapest, Mr George Foulkes, Minister for International Development in the UK suggested that a workshop should be held to explore this part of the chain of development. This meeting took place in July 2000, when participants of the UNESCO/DFID International Workshop on Science Communication met in London to:
The key task of the
participants was to use their wide range of experiences to set out the principles and
specific features of a concrete plan of action. The aim was to find ways of supporting
science communication on an international level, to help engage different communities of
interest in the processes of innovation and knowledge-based development, so that they may
experience its social and economic benefits.
2. The Science Policy /
The Department for International Development in the UK similarly recognises that science communication is an integral part of the development process. The DFID's specific objectives are to promote: sustainable livelihoods, better education, health and opportunities for poor people and the protection and better management of the natural and physical environment (DFID 2000). It believes that 'new knowledge, if it is to influence development, must be shared in relevant and accessible form to maximise the chance of it being used'. (DFID 2000b, DFID 2000c).
Sir Robert May, Chief Scientific Advisor of the UK's Office of Science and Technology (OST) spoke of the need for science communication to facilitate 'discussions between the government and the governed' which is 'a matter of effective two-way communication'. His presentation stressed the need to abandon the idea that what was needed was simply a better 'educated' public, and the importance of embracing entertaining aspects of scientific subjects.
In response to this presentation, workshop participants voiced the need for a different perspective on science communication, which included not just the facilitation of dialogue between the government and the public, but also between scientists and the public, 'to help science listen to the public'. See Figure 1.
Sir Robert acknowledged that this was part of the problem, but said: 'Scientists aren't at the centre of my vision of the dialogue. To me, the centre of what we are talking about is how you conduct the dialogue . . .in such a way that what people broadly want . . . is indeed expressed in regulatory machinery and government decisions.' This, said Sir Robert, means that 'You need people to articulate the values, but then to implement the action you wish to take . . . you need a cold, clear, analytic appreciation of what actions will produce the outcome you're after.'
In contrast to the international perspectives on science communication expressed by workshop delegates, Lord Sainsbury argued that a 'proper dialogue between scientists, regulators and the wider public' required a better 'public understanding of the science' and a stronger 'public confidence in science' so that 'rapid changes' in science could be 'accepted'.
From an international development perspective, Mr George Foulkes said, 'Science communication should not run the risk of being . . self-serving: a sort of spinning activity undertaken by scientists to improve their reputation with the public and ensure continued financial and political support for their work.'
Whereas the OST saw the public's contribution as 'ultimately about values' which need to be expressed in 'government decisions', the DFID saw the role of science communication dialogues with different publics as affecting the decisions made not just by governments, but also by scientists and by the many different publics as they participated in the process of innovation. In this way, science communication dialogues were seen to help steer the innovation/development process for the good of communities all over the world.
Prof. Durant said that many scientists and science communicators have adopted what has been dubbed the deficit model of the public understanding of science. This perspective sees the principal problem of the relationship between science and society as public ignorance or misunderstanding of the facts, theories or processes of science. The deficit model, said Prof. Durant, has been severely criticised for its effects on science and society. 'It blames the public for dislocations in the science-society relationship; it ignores the extent to which mis-matches between the professional and popular perceptions may result from active and perfectly rational processes of issue re-definition or re-framing in particular contexts; and it inspires a great deal of unproductive or even counter-productive one-way communication between science and a sceptical public.'
In contrast, the democratic model of science communication sees the principal problem to be addressed as the public's lack of confidence in the decisions being made on its behalf about science and technology. 'For advocates of the democratic model', he said, 'the solution to the problem lies not in one-way communication from scientists to non-scientists, but rather in open dialogue and consensus-building between the two communities.'
Particularly in an international development context, science communication activities based on the democratic model are particularly valuable, because, amongst other things, 'local knowledge may qualify or even invalidate expert risk assessments'. In short, 'There is a growing sense that the deficit model is a grievously inaccurate view.'
The key point is that there is no 'one size fits all' approach to science communication. Prof. Durant said that it may be that the deficit model is better suited to some areas of activity -e.g., formal science education, public health concerns; and that the democratic model is better suited to others - e.g., public debates about consumer and environmental issues in relation to GM food. 'Just as there is a plurality of issues in the public understanding of science, so too there may be a plurality of forms of science communication to deal with them.'
Whilst there has been a great deal of science communication activity in Europe, most of it has been organised around the deficit model. There is a particular need, said Prof. Durant, for international partnerships, 'because so much of the interesting work that is now waiting to be done cuts across the traditional networks that we have'. Existing networks are 'organised by profession - science educators, journalists, museum people, tourist industry people. And yet much of the challenge that we are confronting to do with science and society needs multimedia, cross-professional, cross-disciplinary initiatives, and we are not networked well for those.'
Dr. Raychaudhury said that the problems of science communication in India are in many ways similar to the problems that science communicators face anywhere in the world as they attempt to reach people across cultural and national boundaries. 'Yet the complex relations between religion and mysticism and political struggle give rise to situations that are unique to the region.'
Dr. Raychaudhury's presentation discussed the example of Indian astrology, which is very different to Western astrology, despite having the same origins. 'The horoscope has been made more complicated, possibly in the interest of the astrologer', What is often not appreciated is the intimate connection astrology has with the jewellery industry, and how it is actively funded and exploited by the latter.' In India, an astrologer does not merely write columns in the Sunday newspaper. She or he foresees unpleasant happenings and prescribed gems and metals that are worn in rings and bracelets to counteract the evil forces of the planets. 'Most jewellers nowadays offer the services of their resident astrologer.' said Dr. Raychaudhury. 'An alarming fraction of the Indian population - urban and rural, poor and rich - ungrudgingly invest a significant fraction of their earnings in the astrology industry.'
Other influences are also felt in India, such as the notion of Vedic science, a 'political invention' which claims that much of modern science and technology was known to India in ancient times. This doctrine, said Dr. Raychaudhury, is associated with the rise of the Hindu Right, and is 'being used formally to legitimise obscure forms of "traditional knowledge"'. With respect to religion, Dr. Raychaudhury said that there was 'no reason why science and religion could not co-exist in complementary roles in human life'. In practice, however, fanaticism and economic and political interests make the issue far more complicated. 'The role of the science communicator,' he said, 'should be at best that of giving the uninitiated the access to relevant scientific information and of inspiring the mentality to put it in the context of their own outlook to life.' Science needs to be perceived as an integral part of every culture, and ingrained in our behaviour, and in the way we think and react to things.
The experience in India has shown the power of television, other visual media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to reach particular groups of people in a country where 48% of the population is non-literate. Science communicators base their activities around the idea that 'the first necessary step in the de-mystification of science and technology lies in demonstrating that anybody can be a scientist by attempting to think rationally, and that the untutored mind can often make 'scientific' decisions if it imbibes certain attitudes.'
Dr. Raychaudhury argued that although traditional knowledge systems are important, the relation between these kinds of knowledge and modern science is a complex socio-political issue. The focus, he said, should be on the encouragement of research on the scientific bases of these traditional knowledge systems before enthusiastically endorsing them.
The new political climate and dwindling research funding provided an incentive for scientists to 're-assess their relationship with society'. But the small scientific community 'had never before been called upon on to share its knowledge' and there was 'virtually no experience or leadership in the field of science communication'. In a country with a non-literacy rate of more than 40%, considerable logistical issues of limited resources, remote rural communities and 11 official languages, the need to communicate science posed significant challenges.
Science communication in South Africa, like India, therefore has to address the needs of different groups, some of whom have had very little or no exposure to science and technology; and other, more affluent communities who enjoy more or less first world standards of living. 'In such a highly diversified country', said Dr. Joubert, 'you need to be sure what you want to achieve and whom you want to reach with science communication.'
Dr. Joubert spoke of the role of science communication in:
To meet these objectives, science communicators in South Africa have organised local conferences on the public understanding of science, South Africa's first Year of Science and Technology (1998), Science Centres, Planetariums, and mobile science centres such as the Starbus project, a highly successful way of taking science to rural communities and schools in remote areas. Dr. Joubert said, 'Only a highly differentiated, multi-faceted approach will be able to effectively achieve an understanding of science among these various communities and groups. Very different skills, media and strategies are needed to achieve the different objectives and reach the different audiences.'
South Africa has magnificent night skies to watch the stars, environmental diversity and rich palaeontological heritage which are being used to "switch on" the curiosity of children. But as well as acting locally, Dr Joubert said that there was a great need for South African science communicators to meet and exchange ideas with science communicators from other countries on a regular basis. 'Such a forum should also serve as a meeting ground for western ways and indigenous or non-western ways of understanding,' she said.
Paola De Paoli, President of the Italian Association of Science Journalists called for action to support one aspect of science communication, namely science journalism, to improve the relationship between science and society. 'Although other initiatives can be proposed,' she said, 'being realistic, I would prefer to start step by step, not in words but with concrete possibilities. Governments and the European Union emphasise the mobility of researchers to improve their creativity. So too, efforts should be made to support and enhance science communication'.
De Paoli, who is also President Emeritus of the European Union of Science Journalists Association (EUSJA), noted that the development and use of the internet was also influencing the relationship between science and society through the work of science journalists. 'The new media tools have helped journalists realise, once again, that science communication has many players'.
De Paoli warned that previous science communication statements, from the first World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), held in Tokyo in 1992, and the second World Conference of Science Journalists held in Budapest in 1999, read like a 'list of good intentions'. The central issue and challenge of the present workshop was to develop a concrete plan of action that could help bring about, 'a deeper, enlarged, constructive dialogue with scientists, research institutions, science policy makers and organisations like UNESCO.' Whatever action was taken, she said, needed to include 'a permanent way of facilitating the daily work of science journalists for a good public understanding of science and technology'.
From a journalism perspective, de Paoli stressed the need for science communication mechanisms to: improve the accuracy of information, address the impact of vague or misleading information on the public, raise the quality of journalism training and update the skills and capabilities of journalists and those who commission stories about science.
By taking a scientific approach to communication, de Paoli said, it would be possible to ensure that 'the scientific interests of the audience are not misled by false information'. Public opinion and gaps in the knowledge of lay people create a risk of misinformation not unrelated to the 'pressure for circulating new discoveries in science', coming from those who commission science stories, 'mostly for personal reasons and in the field of human health.' As well as leading to false hopes, such situations 'influence political and social environments and lead to the confusion of the public by lobby groups in sophisticated debates. Such problems could be addressed, said de Paoli, by improving two aspects of science journalism; the training and up-dating of journalists. Young journalists, particularly those with underdeveloped science journalism education, are particularly in need of training. All journalists need to continuously update their skills, and master their knowledge, throughout his or her professional life.
De Paoli said that UNESCO,
international organisations, governments and private foundations should all play a role in
helping to link up appropriate science communication activities across the world, and in
helping to provide financial support, especially for those countries where science
communication - and science journalism - is still very limited. 'It is our duty to engage
in mutual collaboration' she said, 'and it will have advantages for all of us.'
During the final sessions,
chaired by Alun Anderson, Editor of New Scientist,
participants noted that there is no 'one size fits all' approach to science communication.
Some approaches are more effective than others in involving particular communities in
dialogues about science. International, multimedia, cross-professional, cross-disciplinary
initiatives are sorely needed to reach across the 'tyranny of distance', whether that
distance is due to geographical location, language, cultural or professional boundaries.
Science communication activities that are carried out on a national basis may encourage dialogues about science between scientists, industrialists, policymakers and many different publics. The outcome of these dialogues can indeed be a source of competitive advantage for individual countries. But sustainable knowledge-based development has to address the requirement for a global dialogue to steer the process of scientific and technological advance, not just for the creation of wealth by industry, but for the good of communities all over the world. It is also needed so that the use of new scientific knowledge and technologies (e.g. genetic modification, cloning) does not fall between the policy gaps of individual countries.
At the heart of the question of how to support innovation and sustainable development is therefore an understanding of how these science communication dialogues can be made most effective in - and across - different national and cultural contexts. Under the chairmanship of Alun Anderson, Editor of New Scientist magazine, participants identified the essential features of a practical initiative which aims to develop such an understanding. This proposal is the focus of the next section of this report - the workshop's Communiqué to UNESCO written on 5th July 2000.
The workshop participants invite UNESCO, in collaboration with like-minded organisations, to develop an International Science Communication Initiative that would help to build science communication capacity globally, with particular reference to the needs of the developing world. The Initiative seeks to enhance the work of existing groupings such as science museums and centres, science journalists and journalists' associations, video and filmmakers, national associations for the advancement of science, as well as non-governmental organisations, scientists and individuals involved in science communication.
The functions of the Initiative will be to promote 1) professional development and capacity building, 2) networking and 3) research.
The workshop calls on UNESCO to assist the creation of the Initiative through the establishment of a small international steering group. The participants believe that every effort should be made to seek governmental funding for the establishment of the Initiative, with the involvement of non-governmental sponsors such as charitable trusts and foundations.
The participants welcome the lead of the UK Government in organising this workshop and call for governments, foundations and organisations worldwide to launch this Initiative immediately by contributing to the setting up, as a first step, of a small international secretariat in London.
The participants appeal to other governments and foundations to support this Initiative, and especially through the setting up of, or support to, offices and programmes in other countries, to act as nodes that give this global network a secure base from which to grow and develop.
LONDON, 5 JULY 2000
DFID (2000b) DFID website 'Working with Us'.
DFID (2000c) DFID website, 'The Knowledge Policy Unit'.
UNESCO (2000) 'Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge and Science Agenda - Framework for Action', Principal Documents of the World Conference on Science, Budapest, Hungary 26 June -1 July 2999, UNESCO, Paris. 48pp, last accessed 20 August 2000.