Davies Talking to Scientists About Talking to Public

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Comunicacin de la Ciencia


  • http://scx.sagepub.comScience Communication

    DOI: 10.1177/1075547008316222 2008;

    2008; 29; 413 originally published online Apr 1,Science CommunicationSarah R. Davies

    to the PublicConstructing Communication: Talking to Scientists About Talking

    http://scx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/4/413 The online version of this article can be found at:

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  • Constructing CommunicationTalking to Scientists About Talking to the PublicSarah R. DaviesDurham University, UK

    Recent work has started to explore scientific understandings of publics along-side public understandings of science. This study builds on this work to exam-ine the ways in which public communication is talked about by scientists andengineers. The author identifies a range of ways of talking about the purposesand content of science communication to the public, arguing that the dominantframework for these is one-way communication, and that, in addition, suchcommunication tends to be constructed as difficult and dangerous. However, theauthor further identifies a range of minority discourses that understand publiccommunication in more complex terms.

    Keywords: science communication; scientific cultures; deficit model; dia-logue; public communication

    Over the last two decades there has been an unprecedented level ofencouragement for those working within the sciences to open up theirdisciplines and communicate with publics (Miller, 2001). The 1985 BodmerReport (Royal Society, 1985) initiated a wave of funding for and interestin public communication, andalthough language and practice may havechangedthis impetus toward public engagement with science continuestoday (Bauer, Allum, & Miller, 2007). Scientists and engineers can apply forspecial grants to carry out public engagement work, from charitable bodies orlearned societies such as the Wellcome Trust or the British Association for theAdvancement of Science. Research Councils UK (RCUK), the major UKpublic funder of research, has a dedicated Science in Society unit that aimsto promote a free flow of information and exchange of views betweenresearchers and members of the public (RCUK, 2006).

    It appears, then, that the Bodmer Report was successful in at least oneof its aims: it argued that scientists must learn to communicate with thepublic, be willing to do so, and indeed consider it their duty to do so(Royal Society, 1985, p. 6). As Steve Miller argued after the 2000 House of

    Science CommunicationVolume 29 Number 4

    June 2008 413-434 2008 Sage Publications


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  • 414 Science Communication

    Lords Report on Science and Society (Miller, 2001), the scientific commu-nity has been very effectively mobilized as a result of this emphasis onpublic communication. Reports such as Davis (2004), Pearson, Pringle, andThomas (1997), and Wiseman (1996) indicate the breadth of activitiesexperts are involved in (debating fora, exhibitions in shopping centers, sciencein the mass media). My own datadiscussed in more detail belowsimilarlyindicate that scientists and engineers are at the very least aware of a pushtoward public communication, and in many cases have taken part in one ormore science communication activities. The range of these is wide; withthose to whom I spoke it ranged from department open days to going intoschools to more traditional mass media activities such as writing for news-papers or appearing on TV or radio.

    It seems that scientists and engineers today have the funds, the opportuni-ties, and often the desire for public engagement (MORI, 2000). This meansthat it is vitally important to explore how they conceptualize and negotiateideas of the public and of public communication. As Lvy-Leblond (1992)argued more than 15 years ago, scientific understandings of publics are justas important an area of study as public understandings of science (PUS).The majority of public engagement activities funded by governments andcharities are currently not large-scale events with input from social scientistsor PUS theorists. They are instead ad hoc and informal activities, such asopen days or outreach programs to schools (as Turney, 2006, p. 87, noted,most are small scale and local). In practice, it is individuals or small groupsof technical experts who come into contact with publics, not science as aninstitution or an establishment. And it is therefore the practices of individualswhich will frame and shape the communication process.

    The importance of this should not be underestimated. Work that has exam-ined both dialogue processes (Irwin, 2001; Wynne, 2002) and more traditionalscience communication (Irwin & Wynne, 1996; Layton, Jenkins, Macgill, &Davey, 1993) has shown that framing is everything. Organizers or key partic-ipants have the power to shape the assumptions of the communication process,so that publics and processes can be positioned in particular ways and value systemssuch as the primacy of scientific knowledgecan be imposed(Wynne, 2001). In the case of many points of contact between science and itspublics, then, individual scientists assumptions about the process they areinvolved in and the individuals they are interacting with will have an impor-tant impact on those processes.

    Expert thinking on the public, for many years an understudied area, hasrecently been receiving more attention. Work by Mike Michael, Guy Cook,

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  • and Kevin Burchell, among others, has started to flesh out the ways in whichpublics are constructed and used by scientists (see Burchell, 2007; Cook,Pieri, & Robbins, 2004; Davies, 2008; Frewer et al., 2003; Michael & Birke,1994; Michael & Brown, 2000; Young & Matthews, 2007), finding predom-inantly deficit models (Irwin & Wynne, 1996), but also some more flexibleand positive constructions. However, little recent work has specifically exam-ined scientists ideas and assumptions about public communication andengagement, despite the fact that these will certainly affect the ways in whichthey engage in such activities.1 This brief article seeks to go some way inredressing this balance by reporting an analysis of scientists and engineerstalk within group discussions about public communication.

    In what follows, I briefly describe my methods, before moving on to drawsome key themes on public communication out of my data. I examine theways in which scientists talk about the content and purposes of science com-munication to the public, summing these up by arguing that a framework ofone-way communication is consistently used. I further find that communi-cation is consistently discussed in a way that suggests it is difficult or dan-gerous, before moving on to identify some competing and more complexnotions of public communication. A key theme of this research is thus thatthere is a diverse range of ideas about public communication in scientificcultures: There is not one straightforward notion of what public engage-ment should involve, but rather diversity, flexibility, and disjunction.

    Background to the Research

    This analysis forms part of a broader study that examines the public andscience in scientific talk (Davies, 2007). It seeks to identify the socialvoices of public communication within scientific communities, as Lemke(1995) understood the term. He wrote:

    We speak with the voices of our communities, and to the extent that we haveindividual voices, we fashion them out of the social voices already availableto us, appropriating the words of others to speak a word of our own. (Lemke,1995, pp. 24-25)

    The study involved seven group discussions, each made up of between 3and 10 participants. For both reasons of access and familiarity for partici-pants, groups were composed of individuals from the same research or labgroup and usually took place within a time slot allotted to a group or lab

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  • meeting. In this way, an effort was made to create a naturalistic and com-fortable environment for participants: The interview took place in a famil-iar place and with familiar people. The aim was that the kind of freediscussion that would normally occur around a research paper or recentfinding would be extended to the discussion topics the interviewer intro-duced. Research suggests that the cultures of scientific disciplines can bevery different (Knorr-Cetina, 1999); it seems possible, then, that the socialvoices accessible within scientific cultures may also vary, and an effort wastherefore made to speak to a range of these cultures. Groups were spreadacross a range of scientific and engineering disciplines, including life andphysical sciences, environmental science, and engineering.2 Discussion wasfocused through the use of a semistructured interview schedule by theresearcher (Flick, 2002; Morgan, 1997); topics included participants ideasfor public communication on their research and the purposes of sciencecommunication. All talk was recorded and transcribed, and anonymized. Asbefits a study of talk-in-interaction, principles from discourse analysis wereused for examining how particular meanings were constructed through thediscussions (Silverman, 2001). In particular, discourse analytic approacheswere used (see Cameron, 2001) to inform interpretative coding of the data(Flick, 2002) and to identify key themes and concepts; in this way, particu-lar stories, discourses, or social voices of public communication werereconstructed (cf. Michael, 1991). In the following discussion, I show oneor two quotes as examples; these are, of course, representative of a broaderselection rather than comprehensive of the themes found.

    Discourses of communication within these discussion transcripts arehugely messy, diverse, and complex (cf. Law, 2004). There is, quantitatively,lots of talk relating to communicationunsurprising given the discussioncontext and focusbut also qualitatively lots of different kinds of talk aboutcommunication. The group interview discussions were specifically framed in thecontext of public communicationscientific communication to laypeopleand therefore the majority of the talk is involved in discussing this kind ofcommunication. There were, however, times when groups or individualsfound it difficult to talk about this kind of communication and reverted todiscussing intrascientific communicationthat is, communication within thescientific community (such as publishing papers or presenting at confer-ences). This suggests that there are variations in terms of how accessible thesediscourses of public communication are within scientific cultures. In particu-lar, it appears likely that the accessibility of discourses of communication islinked to a groups experiences: Those that had minimal experience of publiccommunication activities are most likely, in discussion, to revert to a focus oninternal scientific communication.

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  • While there is a diverse range of talk about public communication usedby scientists, this does not mean that there are no identifiable themes withintheir talk. In fact, there are several concepts that can be found repeatedly inthe data and that appear to be important in scientific cultures. I turn now toexamine these, first by looking at the mass of talk that deals with partici-pants ideas of the purposes and content of public communication.

    Constructing Communication: Talk About Purposes and Content

    Participants at times found it hard to express their thinking on particularaspects of communicationhence, as I have noted, a tendency to revert totalking about intrascientific forms of communication. However, this wasrarely the case for discussion around their ideas about the purposes and idealcontent of public communication; conversation on these topics tended to floweasily and to involve few hesitations. This was especially true for talk aboutwhat should be communicated. Two key themes came out of this talk: It isimportant to be relevant, and it is better to communicate big ideas or keyprinciples than detailed research. Thus, in the extract below, Luke explainsthat the most important thing in public communication is to be relevant:

    Luke: Obviously the key thing about communication there is to tie into rele-vance. That has to be there at an early stage, otherwise youll be lose- it doesntmatter how or what you say, if its not clue- clued into peoples experienceson a personal level, if . . . it means something to them, and its going to beimportant or of some relevance to them, they can pick up on it.

    As he describes it, relevance is essential: If you are not clued into peoplesexperiences on a personal level, in fact, you will lose your audience.Relevance as an important feature of communication was an almost univer-sal point of discussion in the data, which in turn led, in some groups, to talkabout exactly what was relevant. People are understoodas Lukes com-ments implyto be interested in what affects them personally. Thus manygroups focused on applications of science as an important part of what shouldbe communicated. That this angleof personally relevant applicationsmight be hard to find in some of the more mundane parts of science wasmuch discussed.

    Similarly, groups talked about the necessity of conveying big ideasrather than the details of their science: They would rather, for example, thatpeople understood the reasons for or reasoning behind the work that they

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  • were doing than the exact names of the enzymes they were studying. Thiswas true both of general scientific contentthe key concepts a fieldrevolved aroundand what we might call scientific process or, as Henrydoes in the extract below, scientific principles:

    Henry: Er- but- you have to think what are the really important scientific ideasthat you want to bring across. . . . So how can you get across like the reallyimportant kind of scientific principles like establishing cause and effect andcontrolling things.

    Here Henry is not concerned so much with communicating scientific infor-mation as with concepts of process such as cause and effect and con-trolling things. It seemed to be important to most groups to focus on s...


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