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Science Searches for New Ways of Interacting with the General Public

It is increasingly common for scientists to engage the general public in dialogue and involve people in research rather than communicating with them in a haughty or condescending manner. We are witnessing the hybridization of research institutes: researchers are more actively collaborating with the media, civil society, and the customers for research, HSE Associate Professor Roman Abramov and Senior Lecturer at the Department for the Analysis of Social Institutions Andrei Kozhanov noted in an article.

An unspoken social contract exists between society and science: the public has great expectations as to what research will deliver, the audience demands that the scientific community reports back to it regarding socially significant achievements.

However, some areas of research are easier to communicate than others (see article: Science and the Media Interact with Difficulty). Urban studies is in one category, as civil society and municipalities are involved in research, and a similar engagement can be seen in biotech and medicine. Theoretical physics, which is harder to ‘convert’ into accessible knowledge and in which a smaller segment of society is interested, is a different matter.

In any case, academics have a choice as to the format they choose for interaction with the general public: direct involvement of the public in the research or a monopolization of research by science – in addition to intermediate approaches to interaction. There is also a plethora of different approaches to popularizing knowledge.

Science can be popularized via public lectures (e.g. the project University Open to the City: HSE in Gorky Park ), educational films and programmes (from the classic TV show Obvious – But Unbelievable, the Academy project on TV Kultura, to BBC documentaries). There are also research café’s and workshops connecting enthusiasts with experts (during the thaw these debates were initiated by science hubs and institutes, now similar projects involving experts are broadcast).

There are popular-science magazines, including online ones (Science and Life, Open Economics OpEc.ru, PostScience) and a series of popular publications on current topics (climate change and global warming, the Large Hadron Collider etc).

And then there are edutainment (learn through play, educational games) projects and hipster science, integrated into platforms for smartphones and presented as short videos. This is in many ways reminiscent of the scientific research of the 17th and 18th centuries, when there were viewing galleries in laboratories that became ‘attractions’ in their own right, and were popular hobbies for the layman.

The degree of public participation in the various different forms of educational project varies. As does the formats for the popularization of science: from planetaria, museums, and botanic gardens to digital platforms.

In their article Conceptualizing the Phenomenon of Popular Science: Modeling Interaction Between Science, Society and the Media (Sociology and Technology, 2015, No.2, pp 45-59), Roman Abramov and Andrei Kozhanov present a guide to the promotion of knowledge from the era of the French encyclopedia-makers to the present day, and considered the nuances of the various different formats of interaction between science and the public.

Science remains introverted

The issue of the extent to which science and popular science are ready to interact with the general public remains a pressing one. Undoubtedly, there are problems with the medium of this interaction – the media: science journalists are a rare and vanishing breed. Science reports can be purely procedural (for which the audience is often unprepared), while it is not enough just to publish research results.

The main thing is that science, even though it came down from its ivory towers long ago, and engages with the public is still not ‘extroverted’ enough. There remains a degree of resistance to engaging with the public. This is understandable, joint research projects would also raise criticism and social control over science, breaching the traditional academic picture of the world and reducing the independence of the scientific community, Abramov and Kozhanov noted.

However, even when science is truly focused on promoting itself and its achievements, it is not always sufficiently accessible for the audience. Researchers can be condescending with the general public, talking in a language they barely understand, peppered with technical terminology and formulae – which is a turnoff for some of the audience. The moral is clear – science needs to be more actively brought into the public domain, and there should be greater contact with the audience, both so that real information can be disseminated, but also to legitimize research. In addition, science, as a repository for information has an expansive competitor in the internet, the extent to which information is reliable is another question.

The internet tries to compete with science

‘The rapid increase in the educational level, the development of the internet, and information explosion, combined with a review of the traditional academic framework is leading to a knowledge revolution’ Abramov and Kozhanov noted. In other words, knowledge cannot survive in an information vacuum or be a closed system, especially given the appearance of the internet, which houses vast oceans of information. It is not surprises that we are witnessing a hybridization of science – it is becoming increasingly connected with the general public, civil society, media and other stakeholders.

Perhaps we are witnessing a shift to a new model of research involving enthusiasts and scientific experiments that can be watched in real-time by those other than the researchers themselves, the authors note. In effect this has already become a popular form of media engagement.

The first experiment of this kind that caught the world’s attention was the televised moon landings. Today, the Mars rover has its own blogs and broadcasts selfies from Mars while scientists at MIT, who resemble TV-show hipsters, make discoveries alongside activists and laymen, the report’s authors note.

Thus, in one way or another, the mode of interaction between the scientific community and the general public is indeed changing. Its borders are shifting, and the monopolization of research by scientists is becoming a thing of the past.

Scientists remain caricatures

At the same time, in many ways, this process of involving the general public in research is more rhetoric than reality. Scientists continue to use a ‘mentor’ approach to communicating with the audience (as seen in the early days of the magazine Science and Nature), and it is very much a one-way communications stream. This is why the image of the scientist remains so detached from reality, they are seen as sociopaths, misanthropes, and not entirely normal people. This turns up in Grigory Alexandrov’s classic comedy Spring, and in numerous Hollywood films since then, the authors note.

Scientists need to be able to make science accessible

The fact that this view of research continues to be current is a clear anachronism. Many scientists try to engage the public in accessible ways and become media stars. In the UK the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science was founded in 1985. Scientists spent time with the media, learned how to write articles about science in a language that was clear and engaging.

At the same time, this dialogue should not be too down to earth, or you’ll see situations like those in the West where the public raised issues like utilities bills and local environment during scientific workshops. That kind of interaction does offers scant benefits for the academics. In other words, both the quantity and the quality of communication between science and the broader audience need to be improved. And even engagement in an active dialogue with the audience fails to address the issue that this often involves ‘preaching to the converted’ rather than involving a broader cross-section of the population. Therefore, in the sense that much of the audience remains outside this dialogue, collaboration between science and society remains ineffective.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, September 09, 2015