Day One of Venice: Biggest Science Communication Challenge is the Privatization of Research

There was a clear consensus focus to presentations and comments at the first day of the Venice workshop on science communication and public engagement: The biggest future challenge will be the increasing privatization of research and the resulting "hyping" of scientific claims.

In the U.S., when it comes to science communication, conventional wisdom laments either the politicization of science, religious opposition, or perceived public ignorance.

But for many science communication experts, including those here in Venice, the biggest threat to continued public support and trust in science will be privatization, conflicts of interest, and commercial hype. This even extends to university press offices and scientific journals, who as one journalist in attendance put it, appear to be increasingly less interested in communicating about research and more interested in gaining publicity and media prominence.

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So what would you/they suggest? Should we go out of our way to avoid popular (ick!) press coverage of our research? Use only the driest, jargon laden, arcane language to describe our work, so that people don't get too excited about it (lest we accidently be accused of "hyping" our work).

Because I'm sure the public is willing to sift through the primary literature to carefully evaluate each new finding.

And if they think that using "hype" to gain attention, in order to bring in more funding, is new, They're crazy. Anyone criticizing the practice just isn't very good at it, and wishes they were.

By mousedude (not verified) on 16 Jan 2009 #permalink

'wide' for 'way' in paragraph 4. I wonder what I was thinking at that time...

By BioinfoTools (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

Interesting. Of course they're doing it because it works. Now that sites like ScienceDaily (which is basically nothing but unreconstituted press releases) have as much reach as legitimate news outlets, why *not* give your press release a snappy headline so that it ends up on Digg?

The mission of PR flacks is to draw attention to their product, period. The replacement of journalism with churnalism isn't their fault -- it's either a market reality or a symptom of the overall de-prioritization of this kind of information by the public.

There's another issue involved in the privatization of research when it comes to communication. People will increasingly view the science (and its communicators) in terms of their views of corporations in general. The anti-corporate frame has worked wonders for the anti-GE movement, for example.

My own take on this is that problem is not the commercialisation of research, but the nature of the individual press release (PR) and/or how it is used subsequently.

I think privatisation is a rather large red herring here. It's easy to play the "evil corporation" line. The nature of and use of the PR matters more, I feel. Most people understand that PR material will have biases, even under the best of intentions, as they are written by those doing the work. Even the most honest PRs will omit things they consider are not interesting or useful to others.

Obviously, if the PR is genuinely distorting the truth or leaving out material that is too obviously relevant, then that's an issue. But, leaving that aside, if you accept that PRs are inherently biased, then presenting them with no critical judgement or checking would be the main issue, not the source of the PR.

I would add that privatisation doesn't have to just work at a "corporate" level and talking about it like that over-simplifies the private research industry which has players of all sizes and a way range of natures. I, for example, operate as an independent computational biology consultant. You can think of me as a freelancer "available for hire/contract" to research teams, so in many senses I am a "private" operator. That said, most of my clients and the projects I work on are in the public sector, so you could also view me a as public sector operator not formally associated with any one institution! (I'm also available for science writing and editing, hence my interest in this blog article.)

Intuitively, I would have thought that the over-hyping in PRs is more true of production and distribution companies, than "pure" research companies, as the former are trying to make a push to the end-user market (with all the hype that involves!), but the latter are selling to a more knowledgeable market that are themselves biotechs--? (I'd be curious to hear others' opinions on this.)

By BioinfoTools (not verified) on 20 Jan 2009 #permalink