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A brief timeline of science communication in the UK – pt 2

Following on from Part 1

While the public sentiment around science has varied widely over the years, there was a significant dip in public trust after the Second World War. The development of nuclear technology, while initially viewed positively, soon led to political tensions and public sentiment becoming more critical of the scientists involved. This affected funding decisions and hampered research across many scientific disciplines.

In 1985 the British Science Association published The Public Understanding of Science (also known as the Bodmer Report), outlining the case for building public trust in science by making it more accessible to a wider audience.

“Science and technology play a major role in most aspects of our daily lives both at home and at work. Our industry and thus our national prosperity depend on them. Almost all public policy issues have scientific or technological implications. Everybody, therefore, needs some understanding of science, its accomplishments and its limitations.”

Bodmer Report

From here, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science formed, ushering in a new approach to science communication. It was no longer focused on the ‘deficit model’ – i.e. that the public were lacking in knowledge and that gaining it would make them care more about science in the abstract. Instead there became a wider conversation about the role of science in the lives of the public, and the benefits to society in having more scientifically engaged citizens.

This brings us to the recent past – roughly 2000 onward. For a time there was a proliferation of effort trying to enthuse the public about scientific research, but there was still an imbalance – and a missed opportunity. This is highlighted in a now-infamous study in which nuclear scientists were studying the effects of Chernobyl fallout on Cumbrian sheep. Because they ignored the lay knowledge of the farmers (either deliberately or ignorantly) they missed out in receiving important data on the behaviour of the sheep and environmental factors, and eventually their experimental models failed. If they had worked with the farmers to share expertise it is likely they would have been much more successful.

The citizen science boom of the 2000s ties into this somewhat, though it treats lay audiences more like computers than active participants in the research.

By recognising the expertise within lay audiences and inviting them to contribute to the research process it is thought that the ensuing results will be much richer and more meaningful. This approach is known as the co-creation of research and is a standard that is upheld by many today (such as Wellcome and UKRI) as the ‘gold standard’ in science communication.

What will the next 10 years look like in science communication? With challenges like the climate crisis, global pandemic and antimicrobial resistance ahead of us it’s more important than ever that we communicative effectively with, and work productively with, all audiences and stakeholders. Let’s hope we’re up for the job.

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.

 

 

Link

Here is Today

Here is Today

Another lovely visualisation of the ‘deep time’ concept.