PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


State shutters on science
How sincere are Western liberal democracies about public understanding?

Ros Herman   Head of Science Communication, Imperial College, London, England

Governments sponsor a wide variety of scientific research covering topics from basic science through health and safety and environment to nuclear and defence science. A major problem for science communicators dealing with is the tendency of governments to construe most science and technology issues as “technical”, i.e., best decided on by “experts”. In this they differ from other public policy issues such as housing, health service provision, foreign policy, education, which are often widely discussed in a wide range of fora. Such discussions take into account and are enriched by the personal experiences of a wide range of individuals. The same cannot be said of scientific topics. Here the key players are “experts” on“scientific” topics who often become part of the internal policy-making process or even of government itself. They are rarely publicly accountable and often completely muzzled by the state. In this situation, the media are almost the only source of information for the public on scientific issues. One often considered a legitimate vehicle for science, but tends to be vilified–often by scientists themselves – when they participate in controversies rather than merely“informing” the public of scientists’ results.

Now we are seeing states–individually and through supranational organizations such as the European Union–sponsoring and actively supporting “public understanding” of and involvement with science. Is it really possible to reconcile these two “stories” about the way the public should confront scientific knowledge and expertise? This is a particularly important question for science communicators. They mediate the relationship on a day-to-day basis. They are the ones who suffer when editors, on behalf of their readers, turn down their stories because they rarely “matter” in the sense of influencing policy and practice. And they are the ones the scientists, however unforthcoming with information, hold responsible when the public is unaware of their pioneering work.

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