Science communication has gone global

 
 

There is a set of institutional structures, professional practices and cultural activities that together represent science communication, and these are developing in remarkably similar ways around the globe. This is a process without an explicit starting point and certainly no end but it is a trend that has become clearly identifiable in the past decade.
Scientific research has historically been international. The competition for reputation, trainees and other resources, takes place at a global scale and its methods and forms are almost universal. Increasingly, the communication effort of scientific institutions is also internationalized, and so are the experiences and approaches of professional science communicators.

During the bi-annual Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference, held in Istanbul last April, there were participants from over 40 countries from across all continents. The PCST Network’s scientific committee is composed by representatives from 20 countries all over the world and thus we now call it “the global network for science communication”.

Globalization can have two distinct meanings in this context – it can refer to the diffusion of models and formats from a single source to many countries, or it can mean the circulation of models and forms from various sources and their adaptation to suit the circumstances of particular countries and cultures.
In business and economic spheres, globalization has presented itself mainly as the uniform spread of brands, models, franchises and policies. This has sometimes been driven through supranational agencies (e.g. International Monetary Fund), occasionally through transnational corporations (e.g. Starbucks), but most often through a combination of both.

Science communication is not a brand but it contains standardized formats and brands.

One example is the Famelab competition for science communicators, which runs in over 30 countries, including those without any other manifestation of science communication. Furthermore, there are science cafés in over 60 countries across all continents in the world; often, these are very specific to the social and cultural scene of the host country. Similar formats have also emerged, such as the Bright Club, PubhD and Pint of Science, by means of which scientific ideas are shared in informal everyday settings.

Science centers play an important role encompassing both the standardization and innovation of science communication and are present in over 80 countries across the globe. Similarly, there are also centers of the kind that appeared in the wake of the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Ontario Science Centre which conform to certain conventions, and sometimes share the same or similar exhibits. The latter, often ‘statement buildings’, are part of programs designed to enhance the prestige of a country or a city and are often on an epic scale.

Having a national science center, or, a network of these has become a symbol of modernity for later-developing countries. Turkey has the ambition to provide a science center in each of its 80 cities; the current number of these centers is seven or eight, so the program has a long way to go. China has built hundreds of science centers. Large centers exist in Singapore, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in the coming years these will also exist in St Petersburg.

Twenty years ago, Ireland planned to build such a center, and today, although it remains in the government agenda, it has a reasonable prospect of being accomplished by the end of this decade. The proposed national science center for Ireland is deliberately grounded on international models, with allusion to some aspects of the Exploratorium and the Ontario Science Centre. This type of science center is so thoroughly internationalized that one often has a sense of déja vu when visiting a center in another country.

Paradoxically, Ireland, which has not yet caught that ‘third wave’ of science centers, is also the source of a new type of science center, now spreading internationally, that perhaps represents a ‘fourth wave’ connecting with the conversational and participatory modes that are applied in the science café and related formats. Science Gallery Dublin, with no permanent exhibits and open calls to artists and scientists for material for its shows, has given birth to the Science Gallery International with support from Google. New Science Galleries will open in the coming years in London, Melbourne, Bangalore and elsewhere. The intention is not to produce clones of Science Gallery Dublin but rather to foster similar kinds of experiments in colliding science and arts.

If we go back 20 years ago and think about the status of science communication when Ciência Viva started in Portugal and when we started a Master’s program in Science Communication in Dublin City University, we can say that science communication became an international success story. This is not to say that everything that is done across the world in the name of science communication is done well, or is appropriate, or is well received. It is mainly to say that there is more and more of it and it all looks quite similar in widely differing cultural contexts.

A wide range of science communication activities has become fully international.

Even with local variations, they are recognizably derived from the same origin. In addition to the examples mentioned above, the initiatives also include national science weeks, science fairs and festivals, open days at laboratories and research institutes, and public communication training workshops for scientists. The numbers mentioned above have grown consistently over the past decade. However, in some areas, the numbers are smaller and the growth is more modest:

  • There are professional education programs in science communication aimed at producing qualified science communicators in about 20 countries; the growth has been irregular, with recent advances in places like Germany, for example, but with closures in other places;
  • There are academic research programs in science communication, including PhD research, in about 20 countries; the three specialist journals in science communication publish 150 papers yearly but the total number of books targeted for the international communities of professional practice, education and research in science communication is a small fraction of that.

 

The role of science communication in our society is becoming more and more important. This is in part due to the increase in priority given in public policy to formal and informal education in science and technology and related topics and due to the greater interest among youth in studies and careers in these areas. This interest is linked to concerns around the economy, sustainable development and the so-called ‘grand challenges’ in energy and food security, pandemics and climate change.

Government-sponsored public awareness programs based on this priority are a common denominator in the spread of science communication activities and infrastructure. Major business interests share this priority with governments, as seen in the support given by energy companies to the big science center in Kuala Lumpur (Petrobras) and the planned center in St Petersburg (Gazprom), and the support of a major information and communications technology company (Google) for the science gallery movement.

Despite this consensus and the notable evidence of conformity, the expansion of science communication is not a linear or uniform progression: it is affected by economic and political circumstances and notably by the crises in many countries over recent years.

There are also diverse models of science communication at play in this global spread: more or less hierarchical models co-exist with more or less dialogical or participatory models, sometimes in the same national context.

This last point is important as an opposite tendency has gathered strength over the past decade or more. This tendency started in the early years of the 21st century when the science communication community realized the limits of traditional models and, on the basis of a powerful consensus, adopted forms based on two-way public engagement, dialogue, deliberation and participation. This is sometimes referred to as a paradigm shift, recalling the work of science-philosopher Thomas Kuhn on scientific revolutions (1).

There is some justification for this paradigm shift, as it involves the most active and internationally-oriented practitioners in science communication. This change cannot be supported by the idea that the inherited deficit model is obsolete or should be killed off wherever it is found. There are daily evidences of the continuing existence, maybe persistence, of some kind of deficit models. Indeed, as science communication becomes established in ‘new’ territories, deficit models are being ‘re-invented’.

There is a compelling need for those who hold specialized knowledge to disseminate their know-how to the general public. On the other hand, when those who produce and process specialized knowledge assume a position of (epistemic) authority over others, this is not conducive to democratic exchange and open sharing of information and views.

We, in the science communication communities of practice, education and research, need to be careful not to see the global bandwagon as a vehicle to override cultural and social diversity. Internationalizing science communication presents interesting opportunities for those working in it. I have been lucky enough to advise on and contribute in various ways to postgraduate programs in science communication in perhaps ten countries – lucky because doing such work opens opportunities for stimulating intercultural exchange.

Internationalizing science communication also presents important challenges for science communicators.

These challenges should be taken into account for ensuring the integrity and authenticity of our work. When thinking of how and why science communication has gone or is going global, it is necessary to evaluate how the uniform and the universal collide with the national and the local.

In this context, we can observe an (apparent) paradox: as science communication becomes more international, national science communication communities are becoming more organized and articulated. During the last two months, I have contributed to several national and international science communication conferences both in the Netherlands and in Portugal. Similar national and regional associations also exist in Catalonia, Australia and New Zealand. In Britain and Germany these conferences are generally sponsored by government agencies or by professional societies. This is a very positive trend and I hope PCST as a global network can help foster better articulations of these national and international processes for mutual benefit.

One internationalization aspect is, in my point of view, the need for becoming acquainted with the English language.

In science, professionals are increasingly required to network and to be mobile, on an international level, and for those purposes to be capable of operating comfortably in English. Research institutes and universities seeking to build international collaborations, to recruit ‘world-leading’ researchers, and to attract funding from international foundations require their public (and political) communication to be international, and thus must be able to communicate in English.

I was recently asked to advise an innovative university in southern Europe on spreading news about its research internationally. On the basis of my consultations with established practitioners in media and in public information, I identified several media outlets as critical to amplifying the client university’s messages. All of these were English-language media.

As an English speaker with some competence in other languages, I worry about this take-over by English. The common language of international science is an impoverished English. This is also true for many other areas of public life, in part due to geopolitical reasons. The starting point for scientists is a vocabulary that is broadly shared, as between different languages: a pulsar is a pulsar and a neutrino is a neutrino, in whatever language. But communication, including communication of science, is culturally conditioned and it is linguistically differentiated.

The French are often identified, and sometimes ironically, for continuing to insist on the value of cultural specificity. In my perspective, we should thank the French science-essayist Jean-Marc Levy Leblond for pointing out that we lose much nuance in communication if everything is done through bad English (2). As we know well from international meetings like the PCST conferences, the same English words in different cultural contexts can have different meanings.

My advice to that southern European university, was to employ a native English-speaker in their communication team to do the international work, rather than expect all of the existing team to become competent in English.

In another recent project, I also had to consider carefully the opportunities and limitations of being myself a native speaker of English and of publishing in English to multicultural, multilingual communities of practice, education and research. With my colleague, Massimiano Bucchi, I edited a four-volume anthology of ‘the best’ of published research and reflection on science communication (3). This is a publication with a very limited market of libraries at institutions with students and researchers in this field.

We had to limit ourselves almost exclusively to materials already available in English, the one exception being an essay by the previously mentioned Jean-Marc Levy Leblond. There is undoubtedly much more that has been published in French, Italian, German, Spanish and other languages that would have merited inclusion in a ‘best-of’ collection. Despite this compromise, the collection of 80 papers and chapters showed evidence of the internationalization trend we are discussing; the number of countries represented among authors’ affiliations was significantly greater for those items published in the last 20 years than for those published in the previous 50 years.

Both in terms of the international spread of practices and of the available published research and reflections, we can say that science communication has reached maturity. The term ‘science communication’ itself has become settled, even alongside related (and older) terms like popularization and its equivalents. This is also evidenced in our anthology, containing only two items that used the term published more than 20 years ago, comparatively to the 19 items in the period since then.

As it matures, science communication is being simultaneously institutionalized through governmental agencies and higher education; and de-institutionalized, that is, merged with and into contemporary and everyday culture. There is a wide and sufficient range of science communication models available to practitioners. Those of us working in practice, in education and research, should remain vigilant about protecting the variety of approaches and international experiences. We should be careful about ensuring that the choices made within that range are informed choices.

REFERENCES:
1. KUHN T (1962) THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS).
2. LÉVY-LEBLOND JM (1996) LA LANGUE TIRE LA SCIENCE, IN LA PIERRE DE TOUCHE (GALLIMARD).
3. BUCCHI M & TRENCH B (EDS) (2016) THE PUBLIC COMMUNICATION OF SCIENCE – CRITICAL CONCEPTS IN SOCIOLOGY (ROUTLEDGE).

 

BrianTrench-01

Brian Trench is a researcher, trainer and evaluator in science communication and president of PCST: the global network for science communication. This essay is based on a talk given in May 2016 at the fourth Portuguese national conference on science communication; see www.scicom.pt

 


 

Edited by: Márcia Aranha (page editor), Ana Nunes (page editor), Tiago Marques (section editor), Clara Howcroft Ferreira (editor-in-chief)

 

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