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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   

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Title  Two-way traffic

Talking about it, writing about it, trying to convey what science is all about… But it is also about learning to listen, allowing a two-way traffic to emerge in the dialogue, acknowledging that society can not fail to share certain types of enthusiasm and stake out ethical boundaries. The idea is not to inform and communicate so as to know what is going on or be "in" but to reflect the basic democratic challenges of a society seeking to progress with the agenda of knowledge. A society divided into the information-rich and information-poor could find itself in an insurmountable situation. Unless it embraces an information and communication strategy. 

Two-way traffic
To start with, informing boils down to alerting people and giving advice, whereas communicating is tantamount to conveying, providing knowledge and sharing. Journalists are well aware of this, as they are required to play on both sides of the fence. Their profession is underpinned by information, but the message they convey (putting facts into context, analysing them, elaborating on them and adding a subjective touch) appears to belong to the world of communication(1). Information and communication are now combined in the highly practical term ICT(2). The technology brings them together and through this they can become misunderstood. They do have certain areas and certain systems in common but they are definitely not the same. Their difference is all the more glaring because the term communication has assumed a new and significant dimension in recent years.

"It is impossible to talk about communication without talking about democracy, " according to Dominique Wolton, a French sociologist, who has been studying this issue for over 20 years. "The communication society is completely different from the image and entertainment society. Completely different from the wall-to-wall individualisation and the narcissism to which it is too often reduced. This is solely the tip of the iceberg and, as always, the crucial aspect continues to be the other and the difficult relationship that may be established with this other."

Communication science now appears to be caught up in this type of problem. Scientists have no difficulties communicating with their peers, as they have long been used to this process which bolsters their recognition and progress in their research activities. Matters become more complicated as soon as the other appears on the scene. This other, which is none other than society, has been eager to learn and understand more for several decades now, because it shares a sceptical attitude with the scientific world. It is anxious to have an input when science appears to spiral out of control and technology takes precedence over reflection, risks turn out to be misinterpreted and experiences appear not to be thought through.

What society needs then are researchers who express themselves, while the scientific community would like society to understand the type of work it does and the challenges involved. Researchers do not generally think of themselves as media stars, hence they do not feel their main task is to oversimplify. "This comment could apply to all knowledge-based activities in general, but an academic or a scientist has to be able to adopt a dual approach: step into the public arena, i.e. use straightforward ways of expressing what are necessarily complicated issues, and withdraw from the public arena so as to carry on working. This back-and-forth approach is the one that needs promoting," stresses Dominique Wolton.

This work – "that which we really do" as Helga Nowotny, one of the top women on the question of the relationship between science and society, put it – is also at the centre of the debate. "Science can no longer expect unconditional support from society for all the activities it plans to undertake and its authority is no longer unconditionally accepted. Society has to have a bigger input and strive to gain a better understanding of the research mechanisms and the importance of research. A new and mature type of partnership is now required," she explains.

These words are echoed by Steve Miller, an astrophysicist and an expert on the public understanding of science, for whom researchers are no longer mere purveyors of information and knowledge but agents taking part in the process of constructing "a society whose members possess information and knowledge, reinforcing their ability to take action in the daily environment and at political level". In the following pages, several contributors spell out their views on the relationship between researchers and the public. Vladimir de Semir, a professor at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University and a long-time journalist, raises questions about the real meaning of the term "knowledge society", which is much bandied about, where the media, particularly ICTs, are playing an increasingly important – and perhaps an increasingly ambiguous – role. Svein Sjøberg, who recently won the International Physics Education award, takes a look at young people’s attitudes towards science and scientists and the misunderstandings clouding their opinions. Jacques Testart, a biologist, and head of research at INSERM (France's National Institute for Health and Medical Research), explains why citizens' conferences, carefully thought out, codified and acknowledged by the public authorities, will add momentum to the democratic process.

The following pages also take a look at the challenge now facing scientific publications (a key component of knowledge if ever there was one) along with various examples of ‘good practices’ in the media, the democratic debate and the classroom – all very different forums for revealing scientific knowledge.

(1) However, other professionals advertisers were first to lay claim to the "communication" label, as were press officers tasked with issuing "press releases" to reflect the messages of their sponsors (industry, politicians, organisation, associations…).
(2) Information and communication technologies

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