Science Communicating for an NGO: The Challenges

I recently visited the media140 conference in Brisbane a number of weeks ago. There I met Elena McMaster, the Nanotechnology Project Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Australia. As a science communicator for an NGO, I thought she might have an interesting perspective on science communication. We had been emailing, but finally had a chat at the FOE shop on Smith Street, Collingwood.

I asked: Do you think there are different challenges in communicating science from an NGO perspective?

“There are some unique but important challenges in communicating science from within an environmental and social justice campaign.

I guess the key challenge for us is that we are presenting a critical perspective on a technology (i.e. nanotechnology) that is the subject of a lot of hype. The hype is driven by governments, industry and scientists and researchers and is often not subjected to rigorous scrutiny or a healthy dose of scepticism (e.g. the claim that nanotechnology will deliver space elevators)

We are also presenting a perspective different from mainstream communication, in that we seek to make health, social, ethical and environmental dimensions central to the debate and decision-making around technologies rather than peripheral (or missing entirely).

Many nano-applications and materials carry the potential for significant environmental, social and health impacts, yet regulation is largely nonexistent. Meanwhile hundreds of products containing nanomaterials are already commercially available. Nanomaterials such as nano-silver, for example, are widely used in hundreds of consumer products (ranging from socks to baby toothbrushes to washing machines) unregulated despite evidence of serious environmental problems. Other nanomaterials, also used widely commercially, such as nano titanium dioxide and nano zinc oxide in sunscreens and UV resistant surface coatings display the potential to cause serious harm to human health.  A key challenge is moving the debate around nano safety beyond the narrow risk vs. benefits framing to a broader understanding of the precautionary principle.

As with any technological shift there are also social and ethical dimensions that need consideration. For example, nanotechnology is often promoted as ushering in an entirely new manufacturing paradigm, dislocating economic growth from resource constraints and revolutionising traditional manufacturing methods. This could have far-reaching effects for people employed in the global South in traditional manufacturing industries and in the extraction of some raw resources. Historically, with large technology shifts, the need for unskilled labour contracts while some jobs are created in knowledge-intensive skilled industries. This means that less privileged unskilled workers are often disproportionately affected.

It’s important that science R & D and technological innovation is not regarded as happening, somehow, outside of social conditions.

The Friends of the Earth Nanotechnology Project is also a passionate advocate for public interest science and increased public funding for researchers. The increasing pressure on researchers to tailor their research towards developing innovations with market potential, due to dwindling public funding and the rise in public-private research partnerships, means that ‘public science’ is being squeezed by the commercial imperative. It is absolutely essential that scientists are able to conduct their research free from commercial pressures and use public money for R&D that reflects community desires rather than the market potential.

Communicating these ideas and bringing social and environmental questions to the centre of science and technology debates are some of the key challenges we face.”

Thanks to Elena for her time. Check out her work at FOE.

George Aranda
ASC (Vic) branch

George also blogs as Popsciguy –