Sci-Comm: What is to be done?

Science communication has failed

Rearranging the furniture in the White House are a President who said climate change was a hoax, and a Vice-President who does not accept the theory of evolution. The rest of Trump’s cabinet is an equally deplorable bunch when it comes to science (or, indeed, anything else when it comes to being decent and humane).

I’m not blaming science communication for the election of Trump. But Trump’s Presidency is evidence that science communication has failed.

You might say that this has little to do with science communication, that Trump won the election on other issues but this only shows that science-based issues were not seen as important enough – also a failure.

And Brits should not be so smug either, with their vote for Brexit and their “had enough of experts”.

What we have clearly seen in recent months is that facts are not enough no matter how well they are communicated. The campaign to remain in the E.U. had all the facts, all the statistics, all the information. In contrast, the leave campaign was built on lies, half-truths and prejudices. The U.K. voted to leave.

Facts are not enough. Science communication is not enough. More is not enough.

How many years have we spent trying “to get the message across”? How many years of “ooooh”, “aaahhh”, “wow”…..applause? Failure.

I’m not suggesting that we stop trying to disseminate accurate science. Far from it. In this “post-truth” age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, the need for good science communication has never been more urgent.

What I am suggesting is that we need to change our approach, not just a better version, or an upgrade – a radical shift, not pimp my sci-comm.

What is to be done?1

If you think that science communication is the solution then you probably don’t understand the problem.

In a recent article for American Scientist Matthew Nisbett describes a “culture of complacency” in the scientific community and “a long-standing reticence to confront the profound, dire problems we now face.” More than that, he says, the very success of science and engineers has contributed to the deeper trends that brought Trump to the Presidency: in particular increased inequality and rapid technological change.

“Scientists and their organizations, therefore, have both a strategic and an ethical imperative to help society cope with the negative effects of globalization, forces that some of their advances and innovations have helped set in motion.”

Improving the communication of science will not help solve the problems that science helped to create. Communication tools and insights will remain as just “tactics”, says Nisbett, “if they are not applied and coordinated on behalf of a larger vision of social change.”

In short, science and technology might be seen as complicit in creating the distress and alienation that people are experiencing.

And here we face a fundamental question: is science communication an engine for social change or (albeit unwittingly) is it part of the machinery for social control?  If you think that is too harsh, how about science maintains the status quo and sci-comm supplies the “useful idiots”?

The more we congratulate ourselves about the effectiveness of our science communication, the greater the danger that we may blind ourselves to society’s deeper ailments. The more we allow science communication to maintain the status quo the more it becomes part of the problem.

We need to go beyond PE as PR, and outreach as a recruitment tool. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, the contextualisation of science has a part to play here and we should, perhaps, think also of the contextualisation of science communication. Who is it for? Who benefits?

As Jack Stilgoe has written we need to find new ways for the public to set the agenda. Public engagement around innovation is good at asking about how much or how fast, but is not so sophisticated in talking about what direction innovation should take. The goal, he says, “should be a renewed politics of science”.

“The politics of science are subtle. There are questions about the science need and the science we want; questions about uncertainty, evidence and burdens of proof; questions about ownership, access and control. We need to learn how to open up and debate these questions in public.”

We have been here before. There is a history of radicalism in science which Alice Bell asks us not to forget, and in the U.K. it might even be seen as a respectable radicalism. Nobel Prize winner Maurice Wilkins, for example, opened the inaugural meeting of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science in 1969.

BSSRS was not like other science campaigns, as Bell explains:

“…what distinguishes the BSSRS from other campaigns is that it was not simply a matter of scientists calling for more research funds or demands for their voice to be heard more in the media or public policy. Rather, they aimed to open up the politics of science to both scientific and public scrutiny so it might change and improve. They perceived a crisis in wider society and felt science could help, but also thought science as it was currently constructed was part of the problem, so would need to change to use its powers for good.”

And the idea of social responsibility is becoming mainstream. One development in Europe is the growing interest in Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)2. This is not a revolutionary movement (it is well-supported by the E.U.), but could have radical consequences if pursued ambitiously.

According to the E.U.:

“Responsible Research and Innovation means that societal actors work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes, with the values, needs and expectations of European society.”

Public Engagement is only one of five “keys” or objectives, the others being

Gender Equality, Science Education, Ethics, and Open Access. Most important is a sixth key, Governance, which brings them all together. In this respect RRI is not just about improving the quality of science but changing the way that science is run and practiced – maybe even changing what we mean by “quality” and “excellence”.

But we need to do more than align science with the values of society (do we want our science aligned with the values of Trump, Farage, or le Pen?).

We need a vision of society – free, open, equal and inclusive – that science can help us create.


  1. Apologies to Lenin scholars for pinching the title from one of his pamphlets. There are, however, similarities in the need to shift from seeking gains within a system to making changes to the system. And Lenin, in turn, took the title from the very influential novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky.
  2. Von Schomberg is the usual reference for RRI. His definition is: “Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society).”

RRI projects include:

RRI Tools:




3. For an interesting companion piece to this post see “Communication, Literacy, Policy: thoughts on SciComm in Democracy” by Rich Borchhelt. This looks at how ineffective scic-comm has been in raising levels of scientific literacy and scientific concerns (and why we shouldn’t be worried). It is worth noting that Borchelt’s article was written before Trump was elected.



10 thoughts on “Sci-Comm: What is to be done?

  1. Science needs allies. The STEM fields should ponder long and hard whether they have been too hasty to claim unique importance for their work while failing to support a broader culture of intellectual inquiry. If everything that is non-quantifiable is dismissed as “stamp-collecting” or worse, then there will be no grounds left to distinguish appropriate criticism of STEM from conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism.

  2. Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Very important post which articulates some serious issues around science communication, especially that “outreach” needs to be far more than a problem exercise or an element of a recruitment strategy, which is how it has come to be viewed in many universities.

  3. Let me add to the discussion an article which appeared in Foreign Affairs today, putting the “Loss of Faith in Expertise” in the context of what we know about the Ig-Nobel-awarded Dunning-Kruger Effect, the negative correlation between competence and confidence.

    As much as we should be sceptical about the author’s tendency to postulate yet another deficit, this time possibly a ‘deficit of judgement capability’, Tom Nichols clearly depicts how fundamentally the recent developments question no less than the principles or worse the ‘operabilty’ (as we could call it in the case of a technology), of representative democracy itself.
    When keynoting in at PCST 2016 in Istanbul, Dietram Scheufele illustrated such self-deceptive shortcuts with Motivated Reasoning theory, Confirmation Bias, and Framing, all quite straight-forward ways to at least explain what drove us into ‘post-truth’, yet let’s face the fact that this also makes it our very obligation now as scholars and practitioners in this field, to offer ways back out of it! My question is, seriously, how is our community going to do that? What do we have to say? Or have we lost the faith in our own expertise…? ;-(

  4. I struggle with many of the concepts in the article. Certainly something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but RRI seems more like a death sentence than a cure. I agree with Jeanlouist that looking down on other disciplines has not helped the image of science. In this the drive to multidisciplinary projects may help by forcing different people together.

    I agreed with most of the concepts at the beginning, except that Brexit was caused by failure of science communication. Brexit to me was unusual in that neither side seemed to want to think about the actual issues. From both campaigns together I learned very little, not even which choice of the yes/no offered would lead to a result closest to the middle. It was more an absence of content. You argue perhaps that this is the symptom of science illiteracy, but I did not see either side trying any other tactics so it could also be argued that had either side come up with more substantial information that they could have won.

    The concept of RRI does not sound much like an advance for the world. Recently politics determined which themes received money to a greater or lesser extent. The final distribution of the funding has usually been through some kind of peer jury, but the overarching themes were given by the public though the political system. It may be possible to improve the connection of the public to the decisions and certainly the relative weight each interested group is given could be improved. At the end of an applied project society already determines if it is successful, by buying the products.

    However, the text of the EU directive sounds very much like “1984” or the tobacco-cancer link scandal. Developments in good science have been towards publishing negative results and requiring all results to be released whereas RRI sounds as if a drug company, for example, could lobby the public to close studies that it does not like. It seems like a dangerous form of oversight when the power to steer projects is given to people who will not know they are being manipulated. Not that experts are much better, but at least it is their job to make independent decisions, the public would be unprepared and quite possibly unpaid.

    1. We actually agree quite a lot! Yes, the Brexit vote was not won on who had the best content/information. That was my point, facts are not enough (ie I wasn’t making a comment about Brexit and science literacy). I also share you concerns about politicising science (though it is already very politicised). I hope to address that more directly in a follow up post. As for RRI….there are many problems and challenges, but at least its heart is in the right place. Will it be able to achieve anything? I’ll let you know after we have had the implementation phase of the NUCLEUS project. Meanwhile you might find this link interesting: Richard Owen says central question of RRI is “what future do we want?”:

  5. When reading your interesting and provocative post I remembered the Carl Sagan´s wraning: “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

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