PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Scientists as public experts

Hans Peter Peters   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

Scientists  meet  the  public  in  one  of  several  roles:  as  researchers,  science  teachers,  en-trepeneurs, national heroes (newly elected nobel prize laureates, e.g.), intellectuals, lobbyists for science or as advocates  for  or  against  policy  options,  for  example.  Different  demands,  ex-pectations  and challenges are tied to each of these roles.

A particularly important role is that of the expert. Taking a sociological point of view an "ex-pert" is not only characterized (as in psychological expert research) by particularly high com-petence in a  certain  field  but  by  taking  a  specific  social  role.  This  role  is  characterized  by  (1)  command  of special  knowledge,  (2)  utilization  of  this  knowledge  for  problem-solving  or  con-sultation  of  a client and - in the case of an professional expert - (3) a professional culture or "ethos" guiding the behavior  of  the  members  of  the  respective  professions  and  urging  them  to  maintain  some independence even from their clients. The complement to the expert, thus, is not the layman (as in psychological  expert  research)  but  the  client  who  may  be  considered  knowledgeable  in  general and master of his/her own decisions but looking for a specific piece of know how he/she expects from the expert in order to pursue his/her own interests. If scien-tists take the expert role in public the audience should be considered as consisting of potential clients who may use the expertise to make individually or politically relevant decisions.

Sociologists  stress  the  importance  to  distinguish  between  "science"  and  "expertise".  Scientific research  is  oriented  towards  the  generation  of  knowledge;  expertise  is  oriented  at  the  solution  of practical  (decision)  problems.  Undoubtedly,  research  is  a  major  resource  for  expertise  and  that  is why  scientists  often  have  to  take  the  role  of  experts  -  as  health  advisors,  policy  consult-ants  and also  when  interviewed  by  the  media  on  these  subjects.  Communication  contexts  for  scientists  as public experts differ along two dimension: type of decision (individual vs. politi-cal) and amount of social conflict related to that decision. In policy disputes we often find experts on both sides of the issue (experts and counterexperts); sometimes the public experi-ences a role conflict between scientists  as  technology  developers  and  scientists  as  policy  advi-sors  with  serious  consequences for the public image of scientific experts in these fields (sur-vey data will be presented to illustrate this point).

Scientists advising the media audience with respect to health, for example, can usually count on a very friendly journalistic treatment. But even if political conflict is involved, according to several studies  media  usually  select  scientific  expert  sources  to  support  their  own  line  of  argument  and, thus,  have  to  make  them  look  well  in  order  to  draw  from  their  reputation.  Only  in  rare  cases  are individual scientific experts (rather than an anonymous group) treated criti-cally by the media. In these  cases,  however,  media  spend  efforts  to  demolish  the  expert  status  of  their  source  and,  for example, try to assign the role of a lobbyist instead.

The  paper  aims  at  clarifying  and  discussing  the  specific  demands  of  the  expert  role  in  public communication  and  the  consequences  for  the  -  types  of  competence  expected  from  scientists  as experts  by the  media - selection  of scientific experts by the  media  and the - relationship  with  the audience. The key point of this paper is, that to communicate as a scientific expert requires other skills  than  just  being  able  to  popularize  research.  A  broad  field  of  competence  (rather  than  very deep  knowledge  in  one  narrow  field),  practical  experience,  decision-analytical  skills,  power  of judgment,  anticipation  of  the  clients'  goals  and  constraints  and  the  ability  to  effectively com-municate with the client are important features of a good expert.


A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.