June edition of the Journal of Science Communication is out. Focus seems to be on communication in physical space and democracy. Check out the table of contents:
“From Earth to the Universe” (FETTU) is a collection of astronomical images that showcase some of the most popular, current views of our Universe. The images, representing the wide variety of astronomical objects known to exist, have so far been exhibited in about 500 locations throughout the world as part of the International Year of Astronomy. In the United States, over 40 FETTU exhibits have occurred in 25 states in such locations as libraries, airports, nature centers, parks and college campuses. Based on preliminary evaluations currently underway, this project – a large-scale, worldwide astronomy outreach in non-traditional locations – has unique opportunities and implications for informal science learning. We present some early findings from the observational section of the exhibit’s formal evaluation in five selected locations in the U.S. and U.K., including emphasis on inter-organizational networking, visitor attention and participant make-up as well as generative aspects of the exhibit.
Luckily enough, more democracy is always called for. Even in countries that can truly be described as democratic. And democracy (which is a constant reference in these pages) is increasingly related to knowledge, be it about whether growing GMOs, starting nuclear energy production or allowing the choice of a child’s gender through IVF techniques. The need to make democratic decisions on controversial issues, which increasingly imply scientific and technological knowledge, comes from the bottom, as citizens voice – sometimes even vehemently – the desire to express themselves.
This article sums up key results of a web-based questionnaire survey targeting the members of the Danish Science Journalists’ Association. The association includes not only science journalists but also other types of science communicators. The survey shows that science communicators have a nuanced and multidimensional view on science communication, science, and technology. Science communicators are thus more than the “mountain guides” of science, as a recent definition describes it. The survey respondents are not just interested in helping the public at large to a wider recognition of scientific knowledge, but also want to contribute to democratic debate and social legitimisation of science and technology. The respondents exhibit a certain amount of optimism in relation to science and technology, yet also take a sceptical stance when confronted with overly positive statements regarding science and technology. Finally they have a predominantly social constructivist perception of science and technology when it comes to external relations to society, while they lean towards a hypothetical-deductive science understanding when it concerns the internal dynamics of science
The first 18 volumes of the International Scientific Series published in both London and New York were reviewed to assess their contribution to transatlantic communication of popular science. The dominant flow of ideas was westwards on topics such as science versus religion, empiricism in psychology, survival of the fittest, jurisprudence versus mental illness, economics and development of cinematography. There was an eastward flow in philology. The preparation of volumes was rushed and many authors merely expanded previous notes, articles and pamphlets. Commercial and idealistic motives conflicted. There were disagreements among authors. Despite all this, the series had a lasting effect on social thought.
Museums have a great potential to facilitate the political engagement of citizens, intended not in the sense of taking part to the “party politics”, but as full participation in the systems that define and shape society.
Sally Duensing previously worked at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and is now based in London where she carries out research on science communication. In this interview, she tells about her experience as an evaluator of the Decide project, one of the most successful discussion games ever designed. Years after its creation, Decide is still used nearly all over the world. Its main strong point is that it allows to grasp the standpoint of the others and, at the same time, to express your own standpoint in a mutual exchange of experience; in addition, the interface and the game rules allow to overcome any cultural and age gaps. However, sometimes the public expects a debate with an expert rather than a dialogue among peers, whereas on other occasions the debate was inhibited especially by the presence of a scientist. In museums, discussion games often clash with the needs of members of the public, who generally have limited time. However they can still be useful to the museum activities when the results of the discussions are used to program other activities: it is a way to gather valuable information on the public’s orientations which is often underrated.
Barbara Streicher is the executive manager of the Austrian Science Center Netzwerk, a network grouping over ninety Austrian institutions committed to science communication activities. Barbara used discussion games on many different occasions, all of which were outside a museum, and took place in places such as cafés, libraries, schools, but also shelters for homeless people and prisons. The communication exchange among participants always proved to be very open and respectful at the same time, even when the topics dealt with were especially sensitive and in social distress conditions. The game experiences were generally positive, whatever the places they were set in. The negative aspects are totally irrelevant and basically concern the time limitation and, in some cases, language difficulties. However, in her experience, there is still not an involvement of decision makers, and therefore it can be said that participation games are a way to help people form an opinion on controversial issues rather than an instrument with an impact on democratic governance.
Frank Burnet, now an independent consultant, was the director of the unit of Science Communication at the University of the West of England, and his work and research experience has mainly focused on the communication relation between science and society. In addition, Frank contributed to the development of the project “Meet the Gene Machine”, a discussion format concerning topical science issues. The positive aspect of participation games is the increase in the participants’ awareness of important issues, provided that the game experience is followed by structured discussion. In this case a fundamental role is played not only by the mediator, but also by the scientist. The presence of an expert, and not so much of a communicator, is crucial if you really want to create a contact between scientific world and civil society. An unsolved issue is what the ideal place for effective formal discussion on scientific topics among adults would be: indeed, science centres appear to be heavily associated with the academic establishment on the one hand, and with children entertainment places on the other. Furthermore, real channels for connection and communication exchange with decision makers are still lacking.
Guglielmo Maglio is Manager of Exhibitions at the science centre “Città della Scienza” of Naples. With “Città della Scienza” he took part in the creation of “Decide”, which he appreciates for its ability to create an informal atmosphere favouring discussion. As concerns the involvement of scientists and policy-makers in the debate, though desirable, it sometimes may influence negatively the spontaneity of the debate among non-experts. In the participants, the main differences can be ascribed to personal experience, rather than to other factors such as age, nationality or social groups. Though not the ideal places for the use of this kind of games, especially owing to time limits, science centres may exploit them to attract specific groups of interest and may obtain useful information on the attitudes of the public to subsequently develop exhibitions and events on the themes dealt with.