IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE - The information on this site is subject to adisclaimerand acopyright notice
 
Contact   |   Search on EUROPA  
European Research News Centre - Homepage
Graphic
Weekly Headlines RTD info magazine Diary Press releases Contacts
Graphic
image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Form and content
image image
image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Form and content
RTD info special "Talking Science"
image  
   
  'Exponential' scientific progress, an omnipresent media environment, obvious political and economic interests – in such a complex world, more and more researchers are being expected to 'communicate' their work. Meanwhile, the media, no longer solely concerned with 'popularising' science, cannot ignore relations between science and society.
   
     
   

It is all becoming more complicated, believes Dominique Wolton, research director at the CNRS (France). The direct interface between science and the public has been replaced by a four-way relationship: science, politics, communication and 'publics'. Moreover, it is not just the concept of the public which must now be reckoned with in the plural: an increasingly complex and multidirectional science has become the sciences and, like technology, are now inextricably linked to political decisions and economic competition. 'Before one spoke of popularisation, today, it is mediation, media promotion, and enhancing the value of research. This multiple terminology is indicative of the difficulty in building relations between the sciences and society,' he writes. Also, in a context in which science is increasingly discussed and where communication is increasingly omnipresent, Wolton identifies a double risk: 'flight into a scientific ghetto in defiance of the pervading media promotion' or embracing a 'logic which is too communicational and which denies the specificity of scientific activities'.

Meanwhile, some claim that researchers are concerned with content while the media are busy with form. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, to find misunderstandings creating conflict between the two professions, which is far from new (see Misguided or misunderstood?). Yet at the end of the day they need one another. Many scientists are not content with the specialist journals (Nature, The Lancet, etc.) where their results must meet with peer approval before they can be published, or even with articles in science journals aimed at an informed readership. Researchers seem to be feeling a growing need for recognition which, apart from any narcissism, strengthens their personal standing among their hierarchy or fund providers. This standing is now partially determined by the mass media.

A mutual learning process
How then can the foundations be laid for mutual understanding between these two worlds? A few years ago, the European Federation for Biotechnology devoted one of its newsletters to Relations with the media. A Task Group on the Public Perception of Biotechnology (chaired by John Durant, a specialist in scientific communication and curator of the National Museum of Science and Industry in London) was also set up to 'explain to scientists how the media operate'. This already stressed – in 1996, but nothing has changed since – that when seeking to arouse media interest in a subject it is useful to know what topics are in vogue, although it is still possible to present a new slant on subjects even if they are already in vogue. Researchers were also warned that any journalist is likely to be something of a snooper, prone to ask questions on the funding of the research, the consequences of biotechnologies for consumers, or the impact on exports or imports. A researcher forewarned is a researcher forearmed, would seem to be the message. The researcher was advised to be always on his or her guard, the interviewer – sometimes seen as some kind of paparazzi – expecting rapid answers lasting 30 seconds at the most.To help researchers, the British and Canadians have even published a very basic pocket guide. But basics can sometimes, of course, be very useful…

As to the journalists, there are many specific courses of varying duration open to them, as well as special diplomas throughout Europe (and the United States). A number of universities (Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Cardiff, Trieste), professional associations (in particular the European Union of Science Journalists Associations), and scientific institutions, such as the Max Planck in Germany or The Royal Society in the United Kingdom, provide training, publish manuals, and invite the press to meet scientists. But their clients are not only recruited from the press in the strictest sense of the word. 'Some of these courses are also aimed, sometimes primarily, at the communicators or mediators of sciences,' points out Patrice Lanoy, a French journalist who headed the sciences team at Le Figaro for many years. 'These are altogether different professions. A journalist seeks information (original if possible), fights his corner to ensure it has the place he thinks it warrants, protects his sources and can summarise. A mediator commands the communication techniques which enable him to translate a scientific breakthrough (if linked to a public or private laboratory) or a wider scientific or technical problem (such as in connection with an exhibition or other event) into understandable terminology.'

New mediators
These specialised spokesmen are certainly not short of work. 'In the current climate of communication overdrive, it is becoming easier all the time to gain access to the press releases of prestigious scientific journals, and to fuel our imaginations with the continuous flow of information from the powerful communication agencies. The real problem is the inability to exercise any discernment as a result of the communication time we are allowed,' explains Vladimir de Semir, journalist with La Vangardia and head of the Scientific Communication Observatory in Barcelona.

A lack of time? Members of the press also know that they can obtain – at lightening speed – information, photos, addresses, documents or a meeting through such 'interfaces', without which their work would be very laborious. A growing number of scientific communicators also have scientific training and know what they are talking about. Some are even passionate about their subject matter and want to communicate their enthusiasm to others. This is true of Claus Madsen and Richard West of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) who are able to immerse their interlocutors in the wonders of astronomy, providing not only information but also pertinent reflection. They see communication as a central element of science, the same as a material element in an observatory or laboratory. Just as a sophisticated optical instrument makes it possible to discover a detail in the immensity of space, so succinct communication can shed light on an image in the public mind.

They like to explain that astronomy is a hyper-complex mechanism, encompassing an impressive number of research disciplines (mathematics, physics, geology, biology, etc.) and conveying many fundamental scientific concepts such as distance, time, relativity, elemental particles and natural forces such as gravity or electromagnetism. While being aware of the impressive beauty of images of the universe, their website also gives scientific and technical data as an invitation to further investigation.


Boxes
image    
 

To find out more on the Web
Science and media relations – practical guides

European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations
http://www.esf.org/eusja/EUSJA.htm

The Royal Society
http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/international/index.html

Institute of Scientific & Technical Communicators
http://www.istc.org.uk/

IOP Electronic journals, published by the Institute of Physics
http://www.iop.org/EJ/S/UNREG/
av6byBXw2gA5fR,Qn0ajVw/journal/PUS

Blank image
    Top of the page
image    
 

Europe, science and society

Through its action plan on Science and Society, the Commission aims to encourage projects to increase public awareness of science, in particular through the creation of a scientific press agency, the awarding of a special prize for scientific communication, the translation of scientific communication products and the development of multimedia products (television programmes and publications) aimed at a mass audience. http://cordis.europa.eu/rtd2002/science-society/
home.html

Blank image
    Top of the page
image    
 

To find out more about biotechnologies and the press

European Federation of Biotechnology
http://www.efbweb.org/

Task Group of Public Perception of Biotechnology
http://www.efbpublic.org/

Coverage of biotechnologies in the Italian press: report by the Pavia observatory:
http://www.osservatorio.it/

Dossier on communication questions in Spain
http://www.biomeds.net/biomedia/ dossier_comunicacion.htm

Blank image
    Top of the page
image    
 

Everything has a price…

17 March 2002: The Sunday New York Times devoted a full page to the work of Pierre-Marie Robitaille, professor of radiology and molecular and cellular biochemistry at Ohio State University, on the liquid nature of the sun – an idea that directly contradicts accepted thinking. Perhaps strangest of all, however, was that the page was in fact an editorial-style advertisement which cost its author about 100 000 dollars to place. 'I have never submitted this paper to a scientific journal and I was advised by a senior scientist to opt for this course of action. It was something I had been thinking about for almost four years,' explains the author.

Of course such an avenue is only open to those who can afford it. So what about the others? Apart from subjecting oneself to the constraints of peer review, there is still the Internet. But Pierre-Marie Robitaille does not believe the two are comparable. 'Papers published on the web just get lost and many authors see this as a purely academic exercise. Nobody ever sees most of these texts. To be read, you have to be known. I am pleased to think that more than 20 000 people will no doubt have read the New York Times article and given it serious thought. I do not think it would have been possible to reach as many people through the Internet.'
http://www.thermalphysics.org/

Blank image
     
Feature - element of navigation Next Previous
imageTop of the page
Boxes
image


When researchers become journalists. Above, Ranga Yogeshwar, a physicist who worked at CERN for a number of years, is a past master in the art of making science accessible – and attractive – through his programme Quarks & Co (WDR – Germany).  © WDR/Schulze

When researchers become journalists. Above, Ranga Yogeshwar, a physicist who worked at CERN for a number of years, is a past master in the art of making science accessible – and attractive – through his programme Quarks & Co (WDR – Germany).
(c) WDR/Schulze

 

Researchers and journalists together in the field… A Dutch TV report from a site rich in fossils on the bed of the former River Eridanos. Here, using a seismic map, the scientist Salomon Kroonenberg presents the historical data for the programme Noordelicht (on VPRO).

Researchers and journalists together in the field… A Dutch TV report from a site rich in fossils on the bed of the former River Eridanos. Here, using a seismic map, the scientist Salomon Kroonenberg presents the historical data for the programme Noordelicht
(on VPRO).

 

Communicating science? The mediators – some of the most skilled among them employed by major scientific institutes – build bridges between research and the press. By accessing the CERN site, for example, any journalist can download pictures and documents for his or her reports, and contact key figures.  © CERN

Communicating science? The mediators – some of the most skilled among them employed by major scientific institutes – build bridges between research and the press. By accessing the CERN site, for example, any journalist can download pictures and documents for his or her reports, and contact key figures.
(c) CERN

 


European Research News Centre - Homepage
Graphic
Weekly Headlines RTD info magazine Diary Press releases Contacts
Graphic