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Communicating complex science: are we making it worse?

by Jenni Metcalfe

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Australian Science Communicators, with currently over 500 members in this professional association. Science communication as a discipline and a practice grew in Australia during the early 1990s before it emerged in most other parts of the world. However, when it comes to communicating complex science it seems we, as science communicators, are not doing it right and may in fact be further polarising public conflicts about things such as climate change, vaccination and use of genetically modified organisms.

The four-part ‘Up stream’ video series produced by the Australian National University’s Centre for Public Awareness of Science gives an insight into the gnarly science communication issues happening around public controversies. The first video explains why scientific evidence is so important, even when scientists don’t always get it right. The second video explains how people make decisions, where science becomes a poor cousin to other factors such as people’s values, ideology and cultural backgrounds. The third video explains why just giving people the facts does not work and calls on science communicators to bring (social) science to their practice. The last video uses a dialogue project about climate change to highlight the importance of scientists and science communicators listening to people rather than just talking at them.

These videos back up the findings of the 2012 Australian National Audit that I reported on last year in The Conversation. This audit found that most science engagement activities in Australia appear to be still stuck in the one-way mode of science communication, where the ‘all-knowing’ scientists or their interpreters – the science communicators – impart their knowledge to a public who should know, value and be interested in the scientific facts.

The final video calls for science communicators to listen to people at the earliest possible time in the research process and to then allow this better understanding of people to shape the science that will be done and how it is communicated. Presumably, such ‘upstream’ science communication will then lead to less conflict and better personal and public decision-making. Further, the video calls for better interactions between those who research science communication and those who practice it.

This is all very worthy rhetoric, but little is shared by the social researchers in the videos about how science communication practitioners might achieve these different approaches, especially in an environment where research budgets are being cut and science communication jobs are being axed – just look at what is happening right now in CSIRO. I would further argue that most science communicators know they should listen, have dialogue and support a more participatory approach to communication. However, they lack the resources or the support they need to make this happen.

Perhaps the next series of videos will build on the awareness-raising of this first series. Ideally, the new series will be a dialogue between social science researchers and science communication practitioners, where the researchers listen to the concerns and needs of the science communicators and work with them, as well as the public, to jointly find some practical, workable solutions.