The rise of ”the public understanding of science” (and of professional science communication) over the past 10-15 years is the result of many causes. To a considerable extent, separate and conflicting institutional interests have converged on the area as a way of achieving their diverse (and occasionally conflicting) aims. Governments have sought to attract adequate numbers of talented young people into scientific careers; scientists have sought to secure continuing public support for their work; industrialists have sought to head off what they perceive to be adverse public opinion; and so forth. Sensing that this was a useful locus of debate, academic researchers and political commentators and critics have also moved into the area.    

The existence of so many separate institutional and ideological interests within the public understanding of science has fuelled disagreements at both a theoretical and a practical level. Theoretically, there has been debate about the adequacy of a so-called ”deficit” model of public understanding of science; and practically, there have been arguments about the extent to which particular science communication programmes are really forms of scientific ”public relations”. It is interesting to observe that those who criticise ”the deficit model” usually replace it with another deficit model more to their liking, while those who criticise some forms of science communication as public relations frequently participate in other science communication activities which are overtly critical of particular scientific or industrial interests.    

In this lecture, I shall argue that the obvious pluralism of interests within the public understanding of science community is a sign of strength and not of weakness. The one thing that virtually everyone in the field - governmental advisers, working scientists, high-tech industrialists, professional science communicators, lobbyists, etc. - seems to agree about is that at present the relationship between science and society is not as it should be. Our field, then, is well placed to problematise the place of science in society; in fact, this is arguably the most important contribution it can make. Those of us who work in the public understanding of science - whether as researchers, or as science communication practitioners - have a responsibility to contribute to the re-negotiation of the relationship between science and society, hopefully to the mutual benefit of both parties.
 

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Re-negotiating the relationship between science and society

John Durant   The Science Museum

The rise of ”the public understanding of science” (and of professional science communication) over the past 10-15 years is the result of many causes. To a considerable extent, separate and conflicting institutional interests have converged on the area as a way of achieving their diverse (and occasionally conflicting) aims. Governments have sought to attract adequate numbers of talented young people into scientific careers; scientists have sought to secure continuing public support for their work; industrialists have sought to head off what they perceive to be adverse public opinion; and so forth. Sensing that this was a useful locus of debate, academic researchers and political commentators and critics have also moved into the area.    

The existence of so many separate institutional and ideological interests within the public understanding of science has fuelled disagreements at both a theoretical and a practical level. Theoretically, there has been debate about the adequacy of a so-called ”deficit” model of public understanding of science; and practically, there have been arguments about the extent to which particular science communication programmes are really forms of scientific ”public relations”. It is interesting to observe that those who criticise ”the deficit model” usually replace it with another deficit model more to their liking, while those who criticise some forms of science communication as public relations frequently participate in other science communication activities which are overtly critical of particular scientific or industrial interests.    

In this lecture, I shall argue that the obvious pluralism of interests within the public understanding of science community is a sign of strength and not of weakness. The one thing that virtually everyone in the field - governmental advisers, working scientists, high-tech industrialists, professional science communicators, lobbyists, etc. - seems to agree about is that at present the relationship between science and society is not as it should be. Our field, then, is well placed to problematise the place of science in society; in fact, this is arguably the most important contribution it can make. Those of us who work in the public understanding of science - whether as researchers, or as science communication practitioners - have a responsibility to contribute to the re-negotiation of the relationship between science and society, hopefully to the mutual benefit of both parties.
 

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