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The direct interface between science and the public has been replaced
by a four-way relationship: science, politics, communication and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.'
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.
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/
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
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.'