History of Science Communication and the Public

Syllabus

Some form of public science writing has existed for several decades--perhaps even centuries, depending upon how narrowly one chooses to define science (a term that had not acquired its present meaning until the early nineteenth century) and public (also a problematic term to define precisely).

It is understandable that scientists would need to communicate with other scientists about their research problems, methods, and results--despite all its controversies, science is, after all, a communal enterprise. But (1) why would scientists need or want to communicate about their work to members of "the public"? Conversely, (2) why would members of this public care what scientists had to say? And finally, (3) can the answers to these questions tell us anything about how public science writing has developed--what genres, techniques, and common goals have evolved to carry out this peculiar but now-ubiquitous communication domain?

As for the third question, we'll have to wait--hopefully by the end of the semester we'll have come to some discoveries about that! This week, in the course readings and in the online discussions, we'll focus on questions one and two: some of the reasons why it has become important for the public to participate in science communication, both historically and in the present day.

NOTE that I have said we'd be talking about "the reasons why it has become important for the public to participate in science communication." I'm being very careful not to say either of the following:

the reasons why it has become important for the public to read about science

or

the reasons why it has become important for science to be communicated to the public.

Both of these rejected versions of the statement imply that public science communication is a one-way street, with scientists as the active creators of knowledge and members of "the public" as merely passive consumers of that knowledge. As Gregory and Miller emphasize, this view is too reductive--it ignores the real ways in which members of the public actively shape scientific practices, goals, and even knowledge. It also ignores the ways in which the public's active participation as "consumers" (of information, products, ideas, etc.) affects the communication process. It's not only writers that create communication--readers participate too, albeit in less visible ways.

 Selected Historical Factors

Here, then, are a few factors that may have influenced the rise of public science communication--surely there are others, but this partial list may help us to think about some of the complexities of the communication situation that we're examining in this course:

  1. "Modern" (by which I mean approximately the past 250 years) democratic political systems, in which "the public" or its representatives are expected to make collective choices about the public good, including decisions about how scientific discoveries and expertise should be applied. (E.g., mid-nineteenth century scientific and medical pronouncements about racial difference shaped the public's views of slavery.)

  2. The twentieth century growth of "big science," which made science a publicly funded enterprise rather than the exclusive domain of private individuals and University research labs. For much of the twentieth century, individuals didn't do science--nations did. (E.g., consider the important role of the National Science Foundation; the role of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the role of the United Nations' health initiatives and other multinational health organizations. Consider also the impetus behind, and justifications for, recent discussion of the prospects of Mars exploration.) These institutions not only coordinate health-related relief efforts but also sponsor and in some cases even conduct scientific and medical research "in the public interest."

  3. The late twentieth century shift of medical research, in particular, into the corporate rather than the public sector. Suddenly, multinational companies rather than governments are doing the most cutting-edge pharmaceutical and medical research, and this has consequences for how the research impacts the public. Most importantly, there is a clash between the traditional scientific community's much-advertised "communalism"(in which scientists work together selflessly, in the "public interest") and a corporate model of "interest" in which private research organizations (parts of corporations) generate income by exclusively owning, through patent, the fruits of scientific research. Though medical and pharmaceutical research provide some of the best examples, many other manufacturing areas also have research components.

  4. Broad public interest in scientific topics, discoveries, and personalities. Is public interest in science an effect or a cause of the rise of popular science communication--or can it be both effect and cause? Public interest is fed by an extremely healthy "popular science" press, coupled with an equally healthy domain of popular science journalism (both magazines and newspapers).

  5. The role of scientific and medical inquiry in several domains of public interest. Scientific and medical inquiry now intersects all of the following public interest domains, though none are "scientific" domains on their own: the environment; war, defense, and "homeland security"; public health (the health of children; universal healthcare; diet and nutrition; elder care; the social security crisis); and other domains.

  6. The role of science in promoting consumer products and services (the next time you're in the shower, read the back of the shampoo bottle--would you characterize this text as science or advertising or both?)

My point is not to argue for particular relationships of cause and effect--it's not entirely clear, for instance, whether the rise of public science communication has spawned the use of science in product advertising or vice versa. My point is simply that the public is keenly attentive to communications about science, often participating quite actively in this communication, though its participation is mediated.

 Intermediaries

What do I mean by "mediated"? Simply that non-scientists rarely communicate directly with scientists themselves about the contributions of science to their lives. This communication almost always occurs through intermediaries--writers and other communicators who "translate" scientific information into a publicly comprehensible language. (Later in the semester, we'll unpack the "translation" metaphor as it applies to public science communication--for now, let's let it stand.)

These "intermediaries" also do the reverse: they translate the public's interests into a set of priorities that help to guide scientific practices and to shape specialized scientific discourses and agendas. To give just two examples:

As science commentators frequently point out, members of the science research community may perceive public interest and involvement in science as a Faustian bargain. Strong public support brings financial resources to science, but "too much" understanding may make scientists more directly responsible to the public than they wish to be!

Science's financial debt to the public also means that scientific research agendas often must be cost-justified in ways that are uncomfortable to scientists. One might ask, "Why do we need a superconducting supercollider?" Most theoretical physicists would probably reply, "To discover smaller and smaller units of matter and energy," to which many representatives of the public would respond, "What can we do, practically, with these units of matter and energy?" There may be no single, universally satisfactory answer to this question.

Science may depend upon scientific writing, then, not only to inform but to delight the public--to promote popular fascination, maybe even to mystify, so that the less cost-effective forms of scientific inquiry (space exploration and particle physics are both good examples) can be justified.

 Assigned Readings

Gregory and Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility

 Websites referenced in the text

NPR's Science Friday

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Last Modified: 01/19/04