More than the echo, part 1: Shout louder

It is now thirty years since I started to study popular science so it seems a good time for a personal retrospective. Over those years I can see that thinking about science communication has changed: 1983 shout louder, 2013 shout louder and listen for the echo.

Looking back I can see that my own work has been an attempt to show that there is more to listen to than the echo.

What follows is obviously very much a personal retrospective but I’ll try to keep it from straying too far into the realms of personal memoir. These are just passing thoughts as I look back with occasional pointing to notable landmarks.

I was very naïve when I first started my PhD in January 1983. Not surprisingly I came to study popular science with a commonsense idea of science communication. Looking at late-Victorian/Edwardian mass-circulation magazines, I tacitly worked with a diffusionist model, trying to trace science as it filtered from the scientists through to the popular press. I even managed to track one story from scientific journal through popular science magazine and finally into a mass circulation periodical.

However, within the first few months I realised that if I wanted to understand science in popular media then I needed to understand the popular culture that produced and consumed it. What I needed was a cultural history of popular science. My guiding principle soon became: to look for science in what was popular, not popularity in what was science.

It was in those early days of research that I also discovered the work of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. More particularly the work of the CCCS provided me with a more “critical” approach to media studies and with ideas about hegemony, dominant ideologies and consensus. Most importantly the CCCS helped me to realise that communication (including science communication) was not simply information transfer but was a relationship whereby meanings are constructed and negotiated – although it would take me much longer to articulate this properly.

And the context for my own research also changed in that first year. In 1983 the Royal Society set up an ad hoc group under Walter Bodmer to look at the public understanding of science. This marked a major shift towards acknowledging the importance of science communication at a national (and later international) level.

Exciting times. Fresh into research work with new ideas about popular science and a different theoretical perspective on science communication at the very moment that such work seems to be taking on national significance. A bandwagon ready to roll and I’m already running – what could possibly go wrong?

The influential Bodmer report finally appeared in 1985 and can be seen as the starting point for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement. According to the report: “Improving the public understanding of science is an investment in the future, not a luxury to be indulged in if and when resources allow” (Bodmer 1985: 9).

There quickly followed a number of PUS initiatives many of them promoted by the newly formed COPUS (Committee on the Public Understanding of Science) – a joint venture of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A new journal, Public Understanding of Science, was started in 1992, and two new chairs in public understanding of science were established in 1995 (at Oxford University and Imperial College London).

The importance of the Bodmer report should not be underestimated. As Steve Miller says, “Britain’s scientists were told that they had no less than a duty to communicate with the public about their work. From being an activity carried out by superannuated boffins or second-rate minds, popularizing science was legitimized by Bodmer” (Miller 2001: 115). In this respect, Bodmer set out to reverse the trend of scientists retreating into their laboratories when faced with what was seen to be declining public support. However, for the very same reason a different picture emerges, one in which we can see PUS not so much as an attempt to legitimise popularisation as popularisation as an attempt to legitimise science.

The recommendations in the report were very much of the “shout louder” kind: more science education in schools, more science in the media, more scientists in management, more information from industry, more meetings of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. More, more, more – like shouting English at foreigners.

Still, at least it was nicely timed for my PhD thesis. Although my research had been a cultural history of popular science 1890-1915 I felt the need to add a postscript about PUS. The Royal Society had conflated two meanings of “popular”: to be widespread and to be liked. In trying to remedy the problems associated with the first of these the Royal Society was really concerned more with the second. What would be the Society’s response, I wondered, if the public did understand science and because of that understanding decided to reject it?

And with thoughts like that I could see the bandwagon trundling off into the distance.

NOTES:

Bodmer, W. (1985) The Public Understanding of Science. London: Royal Society.

Broks, P. (1988) “Science and the Popular Press: a cultural analysis of British family magazines 1890-1914”. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Lancaster.

Miller, S. (2001) “Public Understanding of Science at the Crossroads”, in Public Understanding of Science, 10:115-20.

Some of this has been excerpted from Understanding Popular Science (2006)

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8 thoughts on “More than the echo, part 1: Shout louder

  1. Wow you did your PhD just at the right time in the right place! And you were able to follow developments from the very beginning of a new era in science communication. Fantastic!

    1. “Right time” was pure luck (but that’s another story). “Right place”, maybe not. I was part of the History of Science unit at Lancaster so a long way from London and my cultural approach always seemed to leave me on the periphery. That’s one reason why I thought this retrospective might be of interest.
      As a footnote I might add that the PhD was funded by what was then the Science and Engineering Research Council. I think there were three maybe four of us doing history of science on SERC money. Do the science based research councils still fund history of science?

  2. It does seem like a good time for retrospection. I’m looking forward to Part 2. I expect it will stir up some unpleasant memories of the Science Wars along with some more positive memories of trying to make sense of all this myself with your guidance.

    1. Science Wars will probably be in next part (depends how much I write) along with the whole Science, Society and Media project. I’ve already got you lined up for an honourable mention. It’s quite an odd experience looking back on all this, but your PhD was definitely one of the good bits.

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