September 5, 2010 4 Comments
Just a quick post having read Alice Bell’s post on taking science journalism “upstream”. The idea of upstream communication is to engage with the public at an earlier stage in a process, rather than just presenting the “downstream” results at the end. This seems to involve two slightly different practices in science communication. The first is that researchers are encouraged to be fully open about the process of science research, and to report not just on the published findings but on the ongoing research. This would hopefully increase public understanding of and engagement with scientific research. The second is in situations where the science impacts on public policy (for example in environmental or public health research), and where there may be concerns about the research that need to be addressed for any new policies to be introduced smoothly. In this case, engagement with the public at an earlier stage should resolve potential conflicts in advance, which is suggested to be more successful than if a policy were implemented, then retrospectively defended.
I’m all in favour of the first point. The tendency for science reporting to be done in snap-shot style reporting on every study like it is a ground-breaking, world-changing new discovery distorts the perception of how science actually works. Although I wish science reporting could do without taking a study and adding some invented controversy, Frankenstein-esque fear or utopian prediction of how this science will change the world, I realise that it’s hard to sell specific bits of science to a more general audience without adding context. But the context sometimes eclipses the actual science. Upstream science journalism could help to communicate the excitement and the interest behind the process of scientific research. Whilst this might have been harder when journalism was constrained by writing stories and selling papers, the growth of science blogging, and the increase in scientists microblogging their research, or labs maintaining a constant web presence means that science journalism can be a more continuous process.
I’m also very broadly in favour of the second point. I believe that institutions, especially those that work with or for the public should be open to the public. However, I don’t believe that this necessarily means that every institution should be answerable to the public about every aspect of what they do. Some very interesting points are raised in the comments on the Alice’s post that science isn’t decided by public opinion, and that engagement with the public shouldn’t always mean capitulation to the public.
I had a similar discussion with a colleague whose research investigated how the process of engaging with public fears about potential future energy policy was more productive than responding to opposition to implemented policies, and how that benefit could be maximised. A more senior colleague expressed distaste at research into what he saw as a tool to ‘trick’ people into agreeing with the need for alternative energy development. Although I could see the purpose of engagement to be genuinely addressing or allaying fears, rather than convincing the public that they weren’t valid, I wondered what should happen in situations where a policy is objectively necessary, but engagement with the public will raise oppositions that cannot be addressed. Should the policy then be pushed through without engagement, or should public then be engaged about it in advance, even though that will provoke opposition? I’d like it to be the latter, although I can imagine the practicalities of public opposition mean you might not be able to do it more than once before you get voted out…
The idealist in me loves the idea of free, full and open public engagement, and hopes that the benefits will outweigh the costs, the pessimist in me worries that the voice of the vocal minority could have a damaging impact on science.