Why is science communication important?

During Anna Salleh’s interview for her ABC Science on-line article, “Australia’s science budget ‘uninspiring’”, (see http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2011/05/11/3213833.htm) she asked me to give her a one-liner about why science communication is important.

I’m not usually short of a word but I stumbled over this. I started to regret that I gave up trying to craft a killer quote the night before the interview. Anna deflected my first answer that ‘science communicators make science accessible to various audiences’. That’s what we do, in broad terms, but not why we do it.

I then struggled through a clunky response which she reported as “If the government wants an informed public, an engaged public in science and technology issues that affect us all then we need a mechanism for the public to be informed and one of those mechanisms is effective science communication.”

Hours later I came up with a different take accompanied by a reality check in a second paragraph.

“Effective communication of science gives people accurate information upon which to base decisions. By making science accessible, science communicators help counter the misinformation and misconceptions which clutter public debate.”

“But few people base their decision making on just being presented with good science. The communicator’s message must have meaning, be useful and acknowledge the needs, aspirations and concerns of each intended audience.”

I put the question to you. Can you state in a short and memorable way ‘why science communication is important’?

Jesse Shore
National President

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About Jesse Shore

Jesse Shore is passionate about engaging the community with science and in looking for ways to weave together the arts and sciences. He has been developing science based exhibitions and events since 1984, and was President of the Australian Science Communicators from 2010-2012. His business, Prismatic Sciences, produced five travelling exhibitions for the Royal Australian Chemical Institute for the 2011 International Year of Chemistry and he manages the ongoing national tour. He previously worked at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney as an exhibition project leader and Senior Curator of sciences. While at the museum he was one of the founders of the Ultimo Science Festival, a major National Science Week activity. He is currently collaborating with an artist to create artworks which have a science slant.

10 thoughts on “Why is science communication important?

  1. How about “To help people understand and relate to the way things work”. This will improve the quality of rational decisions, improve the use of science products, and hopefully improve the links between rational science and ethical behaviour.
    Without good science communication, the gap between professional scientists and the users of science products will increase, and trust in scientists and their products is likely to decrease.

  2. My comment probably deals with the 'what' of science communication rather than the 'why' but they are interrelated. It is also not succinct.

    The world is becoming more complex and nearly every aspect of our lives is governed in some way by science. As an example, we are now eating food that is manufactured not in a simple way as in the past but fortified or modified in a scientific way. In the past people would accept this but now, supported by information technology, they are asking questions. They are asking questions because there has been a history of deception, whether intentional or not, and whether we like it or not a lot of it has been the result of science or rather the result of science uncertainty. (the book Merchants of Doubt shows examples if you're looking for them) So if you talk about why science communication is important then you have to address that history of deception. Science communication that needs to address issues of trust and uncertainty is a very complex area of communication theory. Coupled with that you are communicating very complex information, that may or may not be true.

    Then the media distorts the issue. I've read countless articles recently where the facts are blurred. A recent article about the Asian honey bee in a local paper makes the statement that the Asian honey bee has not been detected in the area where the paper is published, but then raises doubts further into the article when it addresses the marauding habits of the bee and quotes the beekeepers identifying a substantial decrease in honey production from a previous year. So the reader will think, and they do think, the bee is there, they are just not telling us. Why was this information included without substantiation of the reason for the decline in honey. Because it is irrelevant and to state the reason for the decline in honey, which, could have been any number of reasons, would have made it redundant.

    I think we are not so much communicators of science but perhaps educators of critical thinking. I think we can achieve communication if we are proactive and I still see a real place for scientists to do more of the communicating, by at least pointing out some of the inconsistencies whether that is misinterpretation of scientific papers or indicating the uncertainty of the research. I think social media is the outlet for this.

    I always feel I am on the fringe of science writing. A dabbler, sticking my toe in getting a bit wet then taking it out at a point when it starts to get uncomfortable, as the science gets complicated. So my question to your question is are non-scientist journalists/PR people communicating effectively or are they distorting the truth and causing more fear and uncertainty in the publics mind?

    • The media feed on controversy. It sells papers. Science communicators have to accept that and counter inaccuracies repeatedly using as many means as we can muster. How to get a voice (without going hoarse) is the question.

  3. The role of science communication efforts is to engage with publics in order to secure consent (and funding) for ongoing research by informing publics of research carried out and planned and how science works, entering into discussions about research to refine research questions and prioritise research projects, and identifying and resolving ethical issues before they become controversial and to do this in a way that value experts and non-experts alike and helps ensure that science is carried out in a way which is democratic and both socially responsible and responsive.

  4. How about:

    Science underpins our daily lives – our healthcare, our technology, our food, the environments we live in. Communicating science is important so that everyone can better understand what science does in our societies and how that affects them.

    • Great start but I’m not convinced the public need to ‘better understand what science does in our societies and how that affects them.’ We need to offer something more active for the public, something which they can use to base their decisions, actions and their voting.

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