A brief timeline of science communication in the UK – pt 1

Firstly it’s important to mention: this focuses on European/UK scicomm history and is not reflective of the journeys of other cultures and countries around the world, all of which have a rich history of engagement with science. The Journal of Science Communication had a special issue dedicated to different narratives, and it’s worth checking out: Issue 03, Special Issue: History of Science Communication, 2017

Looking back to the oldest records of science in culture, there are many examples of the democratisation of scholarly debate in places like ancient Greece which lead to an accelerated growth in scientific knowledge and practice. When everybody is invited to take part in the discussion, new ideas and fresh perspectives emerge. It also made the sharing of existing knowledge open to all without restriction. Unfortunately not all technology lent itself to openness; with the advent of the Dark Ages knowledge became more restricted, and the written word meant that it was suddenly inaccessible to people without the literacy or money to afford hand-printed books.

The Enlightenment – roughly beginning in the seventeenth century in Europe – included major advancements in both philosophical and scientific thought. Once again there was a movement towards the ‘public sphere’, which is both a philosophical notion and a practical one. Knowledge was created through dialogue and debate, and places where these discussions took place sprang up all over – salons, cafés, public lectures, journalism. Scientific discoveries of the time were often shared through these means as well as in scholarly journals, as the printing press made it possible to mass-produce treatises and books for a wider audience.

The Royal Society was formed by an independent group of scientists in the 1620s in England in order to provide a venue in which empirical science could be tested and ‘witnessed’ to give it legitimacy. This lead to vast public demonstrations and lectures, though even these were limited to individuals in civic society with the right knowledge and ‘moral standing’. The Society also became a place for the government to find advisors, allowing scientists to feed into policy (and occasionally vice versa).

In 1831 the British Science Association was formed, which had an even more openly stated mission to improve the perception – and by extension, the knowledge of – science within the UK. Much like the Society it provided a place for public discussion and debate on science, including the infamous 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate on the topic of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

By the 1920s the Association was sparking debates on topics like ethics, the social responsibility of scientists and the role of science in social progress. Though these topics have always been vital to the progression of science, this was one of the first times they had been discussed at large, and with such a membership.

 

 

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