Theories and disciplines of science communication

What is this thing called “science communication”?

Is it a subject upon which we focus our attention and activities? Or is it a field in which those activities take place? Field or focus? This is not just navel-gazing. How we see ourselves will shape not only what we do but also how we do it and why.

In November, a specially invited group of 22 practitioners and researchers from 15 different countries met in the lakeside resort of Bellagio in Italy to set new directions for science communication. Our wide-ranging program included the topic of “Theories and Disciplines of Science Communication”. In short: who are we, what are we, and what are we doing?

I will try to give a sense of the discussion highlighting key themes and points, but will also try to avoid any attribution for the ideas presented (Chatham House rules). The views expressed are not necessarily my own (except at the end). Hopefully the range of perspectives reflects the range of people in the discussion rather than any incoherence in this report.

We started in a field.

The field of science communication has grown over the past 30 years. The narrow focus on science literacy has widened to encompass all kinds of popularisation, social contexts, cultural contexts, values, and meanings. This is not just with respect to research, as the field is constituted by different people doing different things at different times. A cultural and intellectual endeavour characterised by its plurality of theories and disciplines. This diversity should be celebrated. There is no need for uniformity.

It is, it seems, an irregular field with many holes in its hedges making it easy for people to wander in and out. But what if there are so many gaps in the hedge that it is not really a field at all?

There is no theory of science communication we can rally around (and what a dreadful thought if there were). It has no disciplinary standing and sometimes the disciplines it draws on are themselves under threat. If it did exist as a discipline then science communication is not institutionalised. If anything it is a fragmentary rag-bag of health communication, climate change communication and papers from scientists with no understanding of science communication.

Scholars frequently shelter under the umbrella of ‘Science and Technology Studies’ huddled around a common understanding of boundaries, institutions, the cultures of science and the heterogeneity of the public. But STS does not have the strength and standing that it once had.

Communication and Media Studies also provide some succour and the media is still the primary source for the public encounter with science but the focus is all too often on news media (especially if sci-comm is seen as part of factual reporting). The rest of the media is not really touched on.

Education studies, social psychology, experimental psychology all have their parts to play but we need to avoid the dangers of instrumentalist approaches with their emphasis on “impact”, “effectiveness” and metrics (a very real danger with current funding regimes and the academic environment). If a measure becomes a target it is no longer a good measure. Instead we need to preserve a critical distance and be mindful that, despite the pearl clutching of scientists, being critical about science is not the same as being critical of science. Nor even is being critical of science “anti-science”.

Inside the “field” it is difficult to orientate ourselves. There is no “mound” of theories that talk to each other. However, what we do have is an interdisciplinary moment when the availability of science to the public invites us (forces us?) to reflect on what kinds of theory we need. And “theories” are not irrelevant academic abstractions. We all have them. We all use them to guide us through our everyday practices.

The binarisms of theory-practice and practice-research are, perhaps, best seen as a triplet theory-practice-research with each informing and guiding the others. After all, both “theory” and “research” are each forms of “practice” in their own way.

In an irregular field with threadbare hedges and no discernible landmarks, it is this kind of triplet which might help orientate ourselves. We are what we do, and what we do is interdisciplinary (or multi-disciplinary) collaboration. Science communication is a form of interaction, not only between science and public but also between theory, research and practice. Science communication may have no core but it is a network that comes together.

As might be expected from such an amorphous field/subject the range of perspectives in the discussion was diverse. If we were to listen in we might hear:

  • We should be honest about where we disagree; acknowledge the tensions and fractures between us.
  • We have been post-truth for 25 years.
  • How did it get this way?
  • We also need an audience-oriented model.
  • Case studies are valuable but the problem is making international comparisons.
  • Different areas co-opt science communication for their own interests.
  • Science communication is usually carried out as a “service” to different customers. What would we do if left to ourselves?
  • Science practice is informed by theory; science communication practice is not.
  • If all research had to refer to practice it would be dull, dull, dull.

It was the relationship between research and practice that kept coming to the surface. As one practitioner explained not many communicators have the chance to reflect; we want tools to help us do the job, “We look for hammers”. Much of the theory-practice debate might be characterised by the (fictional) exchange:

“I want a hammer.”

“We look for hammers because we don’t know there are screwdrivers.”

“If we get hammers then we see everything as a nail.”

“We only get the answers to the questions we ask.”

“Do we really need to put everything into categories?”

Which brings us back to the original question: what is this stuff that we are doing?

Drawing on a discussion in an earlier session we were presented with science communication as a multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary range of subjects, goals and practices, but for all its ambiguities we do have a specialism and expertise. We do have, to use the language of educationalists, Pedagogic Content Knowledge. This may have many dimensions in the domains of practice, the range of subjects and the goals that direct us. It may be viewed through several different lenses or filters: politics, education, and cultural studies. But it is there. The questions we should be asking are: is this a welcoming space? Who benefits? Who is it for? Who is it really for?

So which is it: field or object? It is like that duck/rabbit illusion. Looked at one way it is a duck; blink and it’s a rabbit. It is whichever way you want to see it, when you want to see it. This might not be much help in our increasingly categorised and metricised world, but maybe that is how it should be.

During the discussions I was often reminded of how cultural studies faced similar problems in its early days. Raymond Williams once described it as a “vague and baggy monster”. In its youth it always described itself as a “project” not a “discipline” – unashamed in its theoretical promiscuity and its pilfering from other disciplinary practices.

With time cultural studies became much more “disciplined”, but there is still a chance for science communication to have a similar youthful vigour and vision. Perhaps we should embrace our own bagginess.


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