"In the last few years, people have really started to think about what communication means, instead of simply handing out information beneficial to the public appreciation of science, or filling particular knowledge gaps,” explains Steve Miller. RTD info meets an astronomer from University College London who is very much involved in the relationship between science and society.
Steve Miller is a lecturer in scientific communication and an astrophysicist specialising in the planetary system at University College London. For many years he has also been active as a scientific and political journalist. He is actively involved in projects and initiatives supported by the European Science & Society action plan and is President of the European Science Communication Workshops.
Scientific communication has become a leitmotiv in all statements on research and technological development… Some 20 years ago, the scientific community became worried that they were losing out in terms of public funding, public interest and the recruitment of young researchers. I think they realised that they had concerned themselves too much solely with what was happening in the laboratory, and that the majority of scientists didn’t want the public to be interested in what they were doing.
That began to change in the mid-1980s right across Europe, and particularly in the UK. You had policy statements that said: “Scientists should consider it their duty and their responsibility to communicate about their work with the public.” So you got the development of a lot more activities in which scientists would tell people about their work.
That was an important development insofar as it put science into the public arena. But this communication was a very top-down process. The scientific community was deciding what it was that should be communicated, and how.
Is this approach being called into question today ? In the last couple of decades, ordinary citizens have developed a much more questioning, sceptical attitude towards all forms of authority, and this includes scientific ‘authority’. In part, this development has been driven by a number of well-known scandals. The Chernobyl accident, which swept radiation right across Western Europe, created a huge shock among the public. At the time, some government information was transparent and helpful, but much was totally useless and, in fact, completely contrary to the facts. In the UK, you had the ‘mad cow disease’ debacle. You have had polluted olive oil in Spain, contaminated blood in France, and a range of other problems, particularly within the food industry.
Just at the time when scientists were opening up to the public, their ‘deficit approach’ to communication was being challenged within a generally more mistrustful atmosphere. So, by about the end of the 1990s, it was clear that simply telling people all the super new facts about science, and arguing that science and scientists were doing the right thing and going in the right direction, was not enough to engender a mood of confidence amongst European citizens.
In the last few years, people have really started to think about what communication means. Instead of simply handing out information beneficial to the public appreciation of science, or filling particular knowledge gaps, there is now another process which is more about building a society in which people have information and knowledge that empowers them in their daily and political lives.
But today, in the life sciences for example, research is not only encountering scepticism, but also protest groups that sometimes place it in a very uncomfortable position. It is true that a lot of people in some science areas do feel very uncomfortable. You have geneticists, who complain about the lack of public knowledge; they fear that ignorance can be manipulated by various protest or pressure groups, like Greenpeace. For example, they argue that surveys show that a large percentage of the public think that only genetically modified organisms have genes, whereas all organisms have genes, of course. This, they claim, proves that the public is not really fit to take part in a debate about GMOs. Now we would always want people to be as knowledgeable as possible. But we should still listen when citizens say: "Never mind about genes, or no genes; is it right for us to be altering Nature in this way, when we don’t fully understand the consequences?"
It's an illusion to believe that simply giving the facts is going to alter people’s attitudes. It will give them more knowledge, but it doesn’t necessarily alter their opinions. Personally, I’m reasonably aware of the facts concerning genetics. However, I am very concerned about growing GM crops in the UK, and by the possibility of gene transfer from these crops into other species with consequences that we can’t foresee. I also question whether or not we actually need genetically modified tomatoes, simply because they can stay longer on the supermarket shelf. So, it’s not a question of whether I know or don’t know about genetics – even if the ‘facts’ are scientifically proven, they are not necessarily the decisive factor in determining attitudes to this or that technology.
Is not the public’s relative distrust of scientists a reflection of a questioning of science’s neutrality, in terms of its links with the economy, for example?
It’s probably wrong to generalise about science as an overarching thing, because it breaks down into groups of scientists with different disciplines, different approaches, and so on. That said, science has big implications – and always has done – for industrial innovation, manufacturing, wealth creation, globalisation and many other issues. So the question is, are ordinary citizens persuaded that this or that technological direction will produce things that people want, and will do so safely.
People need to understand that science is a process of developing ‘reliable knowledge’. For example, in 1996, the scientific advice to the British government was that there was no knownmechanism by which Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy could cross from cattle into humans. Then we had the development of the prion theory and, ten years later, the admission that, yes, after all, BSE can cross the famous species barrier.
What do you think of the consensus conferences, also known as citizens’ conferences? To what extent do these represent a model for democratic participation, the opinions of which could really be taken into account? Injecting real democracy into scientific policy-making touches on what is the relation of any communication or consultation mechanism to the final decision-making process. I think that there are underlying assumptions that if you have an effective process of two-way communication, in the end you will arrive at a consensus. But I ask myself: “Well, why do we assume that?” In practically every other sphere in which decisions have to be made, you don’t arrive at consensus. We have opposition parties in most political areas. Democracy is based on a majority decision. It doesn’t depend on a consensus. So why do we think that this is going to happen around scientific issues?
The ability to reach consensus may also vary from country to country. For example, Denmark pioneered citizens’ consensus conferences in the 1990s. There, they clearly worked well, influencing policy decisions on various issues, such as energy and transport policies.
We tried this consensual approach in the UK a couple of years ago, however, with the GM nation debate. It came up with a report that said that people are concerned about GM foods, and they are not convinced of the benefits. But the government wasn’t very happy with the outcome. So I’m not sure how much notice they have taken of that report, and how much influence it has had on their policy-making process.
The European Science Communication Workshops (ESCW) initiative is picking up where the Enscot network left off, the latter having already launched actions for scientists in the “art of communicating”. Among other things, it organises conferences to assess the clarity of ...
The art of dialogue
The European Science Communication Workshops (ESCW) initiative is picking up where the Enscot network left off, the latter having already launched actions for scientists in the “art of communicating”. Among other things, it organises conferences to assess the clarity of messages aimed at the general public as well as workshops to simulate situations of dialogue or debate. In these workshops, one group of researchers may take the role of chemists proposing a new production method while another group acts out the role of local people living close to the factory who have questions about quality control procedures, possible pollution, etc. – as well as the number of jobs that could be created.
"Very often the idea of dialogue is actually considered as a better way to persuade ordinary citizens that scientists are right,” believes Steve Miller. “Dialogue is two people speaking. It has to be a way for scientists to find out what citizens feel and want, and maybe take it into account. The scientific community is going to have to learn that they don’t necessarily have the last word. Ethical issues will come up."