Barcelona: science comes to town

"The most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010". These were the terms in which the 2000 Lisbon strategy described a future European Union focused on the “knowledge society”. But how should the vital issues raised by science be shared with society and its citizens? Last December, the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona (ES) hosted the first European Forum on Science Journalism to consider the question.

“Science is the most agreeable field of journalism,” declared BBC journalist Quentin Cooper at the outset, with the hint of a smile. “Because unlike politicians and stars who are harassed constantly by the media, scientists are only too pleased to answer questions put to them…” Cooper is right. As a rule, researchers welcome the chance to communicate. But following this encouraging introduction, the two days of the forum – attended by almost 200 professionals from five continents – showed that, however fascinating it may be, science journalism is far from easy.

Science–society: the big divide

As the ultimate mediator, the journalist must maintain dialogue between two worlds – the world of science on one hand and the world of society and the media on the other. And this at a time when both worlds are rapidly changing. “Science and society are no longer in step as they were a few decades ago. In the past, science helped society,” explained Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in his address to the forum. “This divide harms both parties a great deal and today journalists need more help than ever in resolving the conflicts.”

From agri-foodstuffs to new textiles, there is no corner of society that does not draw on the technological research pursued by an everchanging society. As a result, our increasingly dependent lifestyles are adapting continually to an omnipresent technical arsenal. Science and its constant innovations pervade every moment of our existence.

The media are no exception to the rule. They too are experiencing profound changes. They no longer generate the wonder and discussion in households as on the evening of 21 July 1969, when every TV network in the world showed man take his first steps on the Moon. Social structures have changed since then, as have the ways of obtaining information. Television has become commonplace to the point where for many it is the first source of information, including on science. Accessible and popular, it arouses curiosity and the visual possibilities make it an effective educational tool. But its temporal linearity constitutes a major drawback: the small screen imposes its rhythm on a public that disconnects at the slightest lapse of attention. Unlike the reader, the viewer cannot set their own pace.

Sensationalist science

We all know that information has also become a commodity and must reach a sufficient audience. Attention-grabbing headlines are the rule, coupled with an over-emphasis on the exceptional, the intriguing and the alarming. Science news is certainly no exception quite the opposite given its increasing importance in society. It is a trend that compromises the credibility of science journalists and researchers alike, and is a cause of concern to both parties. Marie-Claude Roland, a researcher at the INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique – FR), admits to being “very sceptical in the face of a sensationalist science journalism that tells stories, invokes a spirit of adventure but at the same time alarms the general public.” It is a concern shared by Tanya Peterson, Director of the WWF Television Centre (AU): “Television is a leisure activity, climate change is not. What is the right marriage? How far can we go before science is compromised?”

Although it is difficult to inform the general public of the progress made and issues raised by science without distorting the content, it is a challenge the EU must meet if it wants to move towards being a knowledge society, encourage young people to pursue careers in science and achieve the Lisbon objectives. To successfully “popularise” science and promote the partnership between science and the media, it is first necessary to identify and analyse the respective divergences and expectations of these very different worlds. This is precisely the aim of two special studies on European Research in the Media that were published by the Commission on the occasion of the Forum.

A relationship under the microscope

The first of the studies adopts the researcher’s perspective. Often part of a highly specialised community, researchers build their reputation over time on the basis of precision and rigour. Their career can be seriously damaged if their research is used to fuel an insufficiently explained or badly argued public controversy, a risk that few seem prepared to take. The study suggests that communication with the media is somewhat alien to the culture of European scientific circles, to the point where it is sometimes even regarded as being a perversion. As Alan Leshner points out, the with the general public. Acquiring such skills be difficult to reconcile.

While scientific sources see the media’s role as being to educate the public and regard the sound basis of their own work as a given, the essential mission of journalism is not only to communicate information and shed light on a subject, but also to provide a critical perspective. Finally, science journalists are subject to editorial pressure and have to respect editorial policy that, in the interests of profit, tends to give priority to the entertaining and the dramatic.

A marriage of convenience

With their specific constraints and cultures, cooperation between the worlds of science and of the media is often reduced to a compromise. The dynamic of science communication in Europe lacks the ingredients to elevate the relationship above that of a marriage of convenience. It is in order to move more in this direction that the Commission is adopting a number of initiatives (see box European tools), the first Forum in Barcelona being just one example. But to judge from many of the speakers at this event, it seems that a genuine change in mentality is needed, particularly in the world of science. It is rare, for example, for a European research project to include a component dedicated to communicating with the general public. When research centres do set up a communication service, too often it acts as a kind of filter or barrier rather than a genuine facilitation interface.

To encourage direct contact between the media and researchers, the latter require training that, believes Marie-Claude Roland, is left still very much wanting. “There has been talk of training young researchers for 30 years now. There have been a lot of trials, some of them very positive. But still we continue to use them as technicians. The culture is not changing and there is no global awareness of the issue within the research system itself.” It is an opinion shared by Steve Miller, Professor of Science Communication at University College London: “Training scientists is not standard practice. Senior researchers sometimes discourage young people interested in getting involved in the media, which makes no sense.”

Yet despite this situation, researchers are highly regarded by the general public. The 2007 Eurobarometer survey Scientific research in the media, carried out by the Directorate- General for Research among approximately 27 000 persons in the 27 Member States, found that scientists are the favoured interlocutors. The survey also showed that most people are interested in scientific research and half of those interviewed consider that media coverage of research is sufficient and satisfactory. There are nevertheless some reservations: science information in the media is seen as reliable, objective, useful and varied but also difficult to understand, not very entertaining and unrelated to their concerns. The communication channels are therefore open, but the message received remains rather fuzzy.

Delphine d’Hoop


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European tools

Guide to a successful communication: for EU-funded projects that are obliged to publish their results following the 2001 Science and Society Action Plan.

European Science Week: visual projects and a host of other activities showing how science plays a part in the all of our everyday lives.

CER 2005 – Communicating European research: conference for project coordinators and communication professionals to promote a better understanding of their respective roles and improve the way science is communicated to the general public.

René Descartes Prize for science communication: rewards projects whose aims include bringing science closer to the citizen.

Athenaweb portal: makes films and photographs available free of charge to communication professionals in the interests of making European research more visible.

Xplora portal:  for tools designed to facilitate science education in Europe.

Messenger: This project, funded under the Science and Society programme, brought together scientists, journalists, industrialists and politicians to debate science communication and decision-making processes. In particular, it produced a booklet on science communication with the aid of journalists:


Science in Chinese society

Documents presented at the Forum

European Research in the Media:

The Researcher's point of view:

What do Media Professionals think?

La recherche scientifique dans les médias (enquête eurobaromètre):

Overview of science reporting in the EU:

European Guide to Science Journalism Training:


Some Eurobarometer data

Medicine and the environment are the two fields of research that interest Europeans the most, with respectively 62% and 43% attracting an interest.

56% of the Europeans interviewed said they were satisfied with the activity of the media in scientific research. 54 % believe they occupy a sufficient space and 52 % think that scientists are sufficiently represented.

Almost half of the respondents nevertheless find the scientific information presented in the media difficult to understand.

As the primary source of scientific information, television is regarded as the most reliable media. Its research information reaches the biggest audience: 61 % of the Europeans interviewed say they watch programmes on scientific research regularly.

It is in the longest standing EU Member States that people are most receptive to scientific information. The figures range from 80 % for Sweden to just 24 % for Bulgaria.