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RDT info logoMagazine on European Research N° 51 - December 2006
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CommUnicating Science
Title  "A straight-talking scientist can create quite a stir"

Having travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and North America, Quebec-based Professor Bernard Schiele has spent time analysing and confronting the “publicisation” – rather than the popularisation – of science. Involvement of researchers, discussion in the media and the work of museums are the big ideas that underlie his ideas.

Bernard Schiele
Bernard Schiele A member of the PCST (Public Communication of Science and Technology) scientific committee and a researcher at CIRST (Centre interuniversitaire sur la science et la technologie). Bernard Schiele is Professor in the Communications Faculty of the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM). His research relates to the “publicisation” of science, especially through the media and museums. He directs comparative research in Canada, the United States and France, and chairs the international scientific committee that is working on the Beijing Science Museum project.

©  Nathalie St-Pierre - UQAM

Communicating science sometimes sounds a bit like a proactive slogan. Almost like you mean “making science acceptable”. Is that really the underlying idea?
In reality science is very well embedded in our society, where economic dynamism is underpinned more and more by intensive research activities. This relationship between knowledge and economics is nothing new, but it has changed significantly over time. During the 19th century, the application of scientific knowledge helped large-scale industry emerge, and there was a spirit that was characterised by an affirmation that science was vital for society.

Nowadays, technologies that are derived from science are transforming the way we think, the way we act, the way we behave and the way we are. This omnipresence entails a certain reluctance. The “natural” effect is to create doubt, even “counter-arguments”. But really, when you consider that science is redefining our conceptions of what we once believed was a given – the human being – how could we expect things to be any different?

How did this critical movement emerge?
The general public has gradually come to understand that with progress comes pollution and risk – the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, the explosion at the pesticides factory in Bhopal in 1984, Chernobyl in 1986, etc. Science is no longer accepted on its own merits, but rather through its possible contribution to progress. This realignment represents an important marker in the relationship between science and society.

The bonds between science and the economy are leading the public to ask more and more questions. Historically, research had been seen as a sphere of probity and relative autonomy. Just after the Second World War, to cut a long story short, we believed in an idealised world where science produced fundamental knowledge. Its findings, appropriated by the socially-motivated, would contribute to a better life, both individually and collectively. Science, or fundamental research, had an important role to play, and was an indirect driver of the economy. Since then, we have broken with the utopian idea of a society transformed by the Enlightened. Contemporary sciences have been recast in the context of globalisation, the negative effects of which we are just starting to measure. Today, the desire for economic progress is driving research, increasingly used and abused, to the paths of innovation. Each technical idea is designed for a period of a few months, before a new product makes the former obsolete. Innovation has become a servant of the economy, while basic research is enslaved to innovation.

Surely scientists, whose greatest quality is to question something, should be able to rejoice in the scepticism of the general public?

This questioning is, of course, totally necessary and logical. If you are talking as an expert, we want to know who you are, who you are working with – a whole range of elements that might seem incidental, but which are actually important. This curiosity is proof of a certain sharing of knowledge and awareness of what is at stake in a society that is now conscious of its responsibilities. A growing number of people are demanding answers, they want to re-engage in the debate, share in the problems of those who are living together with them on this planet. Just look at the debate on the environment. It is an absolutely vital issue, and a great many attempts have been made to restore the confidence society has in political, economic and scientific institutions. Moreover, in this case, it is the scientists who have been the first to pull the emergency cord.

The Royal Society in Great Britain has just completed a survey of around 1,500 scientists to find out their opinion on communicating science. These scientists understand the importance of the phenomenon, but many thought that the major part of their time should be given over to research, and that they are already obliged to spend lots of time in finding funding…

the Palais de la découverte

Inaugurated in 1937, the Palais de la découverte has always been devoted to “publicising” basic research through the experiments conducted by scientists. Exhibitions, workshops, scientific meetings, research teams performing “manips” (short experiments) have all modernised an approach that aims to make the science experience more accessible to all.

© Chantal Rousselin – Palais de la Découverte, Paris

It has been remarked that the “popularisers” are most often researchers who are at the start of their career, or scientists coming to the end of their tenure, providing them with a form of legitimacy and the approval of their peers. Researchers who are in the middle of their careers are totally devoted to it, explaining they have no other choice. Yet I think that scientists cannot ignore their involvement in society.

That said, the decision-makers at a political, economic and scientific level will not greatly appreciate researchers getting openly involved in the debate about science and society. They would prefer to relegate the researchers to the role of technical expert. A straight-talking scientist can create quite a stir, and our leaders do not particularly want too much knowledge to be in circulation. This explains the basic uneasiness with even just the idea of a “knowledge society”.

In that case, would it not be up to journalists to go knocking on the doors of researchers?

Yes, they have a duty to do so. But they have to remember that the media are often in a difficult position. Scientific journalists are a little like the natural intermediary between researchers and the general public. They often bemoan the researcher’s lack of talent in the art of communication, but at the same time that justifies their own role. Nevertheless, whenever they find a scientist who seems to be at ease and has a certain “aura”, the media are quick enough to call on that person for every topic, since he or she is able to meet the media’s requirements (using, for example, their ability to summarise a situation in a simple image, or to reconcile two positions, or employ a metaphor) rather than because he or she is an expert in that particular area. The researcher, therefore, is called on for journalistic reasons rather than scientific ones, increasing the risk of leaving their own sphere of expertise and sliding towards the expression of opinion. It is this to which an aware public is sensitive, leading it to question itself about the media, the way the media depict scientists and even science itself. That is why the job of the journalist is as crucial as it is difficult.

Another area of communication in science that you are involved with is through museums. How do they interpret the changes in the relationship between research and the general public?

Generally speaking, museums reflect the role of science in society. In Paris, the Palais de la Découverte, inaugurated in 1937, glorified basic research, while the Cité des sciences et de l'industrie was designed in 1986 to present and value technical applications, each one showing a snapshot of a moment in the development of the relationship between science and society.

The aim of the Palais de la Découverte was (and is today) to recreate the key moment of research, by reproducing the significant experiments that represent milestones in the knowledge that research unearthed. This discovery is the rare moment that pays back all the years of work undertaken in the hope that the researcher could contribute to the progress of science and mankind, with no economic constraints. This vision prevailed for a long time. From the 1970s, however, things began to change: economic development, sustained by an unrelenting pressure for innovation, imposed itself as vital for society. The boom in science centres and the accompanying rise in scientific communication are an acknowledgement of this change in perspective. Museums’ treatment of science is undergoing a “cultural revolution”. The new centres are placing an emphasis on the relationship with communication, producing interactive exhibits that are both educational and playful in order to capture the attention of visitors and concentrate on the technical and industrial realisation of the research, but that did not count on the questions of a public that does not necessarily want all the answers, but does want to be able to contemplate. Museum directors are, therefore, torn between a new relationship between science and society, which suggests to them that science should be depicted just as it is, a more critical general public, and pressure from the cultural sector towards consumption. Fortunately, they also know that while they can never compete with Disneyland, they will never return to a rose-tinted view of progress. It is maybe this frame of mind that tells us that making an effort in scientific communication can bear fruit…

Version imprimable
  PCST – informal efficiency
Unconventional, intercontinental, multidisciplinary – the PCST network brings together various participants in the communication of science (researchers, journalists, museum staff, scientists, etc.)...
  PCST – informal efficiency

Unconventional, intercontinental, multidisciplinary – the PCST network brings together various participants in the communication of science (researchers, journalists, museum staff, scientists, etc.). Its aim is to create links by staging international conferences, online discussions and exchanging best practices. The PCST has produced various publications on the topics of its meetings. The most recent, At the human scale – International practices in science communication, summarises the subjects handled in Beijing in 2005.


TO FIND OUT MORE www.pcstnetwork.org