A Science Communication Strategy for Europe

Science Communication

Last week, 25 science communicators from across Europe, gathered in a remote village in the North of Germany to discuss the future of Science Communication. I was lucky enough to be one of the 25, who ranged from university press officers, to freelance podcasters, who made up the ‘Siggen Circle’.

Over our time at the beautiful Gut Siggen, we shared our experiences of communicating science, presented current and future trends and set out to develop a common plan for taking science communication forward over the next 10 years. It was an intensive environment and whether we were hiking to the beach or in workshop sessions, the future of science communication was not off our minds.

During the final day, I worked in a small group looking at the future of science communication from the perspective of the public, or society. Our task was to think about what people want from science communicators.

Up until that point, as is the case in the field in general at the moment, the focus of the meeting had been on public participation and citizen science. But while we all knew that the relationship between knowledge and attitudes to science and technology is much more complicated than the deficit model suggests (or ‘to know it is to love it’), we acknowledged there are still some people with an appetite for more information about science. More importantly, there are instances where it is vital that we can communicate scientific information to large groups of people – during emergency situations such as floods, or in order to protect populations by vaccines, for instance. Discovering more effective ways to give information in these circumstances is a useful activity that has become desperately unfashionable over the past 20 years.

Alongside that there appears to be an unmet appetite amongst some not just to know science, but to get involved too. And the growing potential to process big-data is whetting scientists’ appetite to involve citizens in their research too. We heard from colleagues involved in citizen science projects about how much potential there is to help people understand the process of science as well as the excitement of science.

Beyond that however, my group agreed that it was also important to enable people to have a say in the course and direction of scientific research – not least to make sure that science really does address the kinds of issues that wider society is concerned about. We did however acknowledge that for participation to be truly effective, decision makers have to be committed to taking the views expressed into account.

Pulling these three discussions together, we agreed that a European science communication strategy that meets the needs of the public needs at least three strands:

  1. Letting people know about science
  2. Letting people have a go at science
  3. Letting people have a say-so about science.

These three strands together, seem to offer a coherent approach to science communication not just for Europe, but for National Institutions wanting to clarify their role too.  Rather than forcing a choice between information giving and public participation, with this approach, we can tailor our approach to the needs of the audience by acknowledging that some people want information, while others want more of a say in the direction of science, and others still want to get involved. We can be truly effective science communicators.

At the end of the workshop, we had produced a draft ‘text’ that lays out our aspirations and proposals for the future of science communication in Europe, which we will be refining over the next few weeks, before sharing it more publicly (hopefully) in the run-up to the ESOF Conference in July. So watch this space.