Author: Hans Peter Peters – Free University Berlin. Germany

The call for dialog as the ‘gold standard’ in public communication of science and technology is ubiquitous. Some even denounce any form of knowledge dissemination from science to public not based on dialog or public engagement as application of the ‘deficit model’ – the utmost form of contempt our community has to offer.

I do not dispute that public discourses over science and technology and engagement activities are desirable, useful and needed in many communication contexts. Yet, we observe that the bulk of today’s public communication of science still relies on one-way dissemination of messages – directly from scientific sources to the public by means of scientist-authored articles in popular journals, books and on university websites, for example, or mediated by journalists, bloggers, government agencies and stakeholders. Even channels which invite feedback and would allow debate are used that way only by a tiny minority of ‘recipients’.

Does this prove the lamentable state of public communication of science, the disrespect of scientific communicators for the public, or the public’s disinterest in science? Or do we have to acknowledge a public demand not only for dialog but also for straight information that can best be served by dissemination of science carefully reconstructed for public consumption (to borrow a term from Sharon Dunwoody)?

In my presentation I argue that knowledge dissemination does not necessarily imply application of the deficit model, and that in many instances dissemination is the adequate answer to public information demands. The relevant question is whether and how dissemination of scientific knowledge is possible without falling into the trap of deficit model thinking. I conclude by sketching a concept of “non-paternalistic knowledge communication” that avoids interpreting the gap in special knowledge between scientists and laypeople in terms of a master-student relationship, and does not expect uncritical submission of laypeople to scientific authority.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Transformation

Author: Hans Peter Peters – Free University Berlin, Germany

Luisa Massarani – Brazilian Institute of PCST, Brazil

Scientists are important actors in the public communication of science. Many studies have focused on them because the authors assumed that the quality of PCST depended on scientists’ contributions but diagnosed obstacles such as “scientific barriers” (Dunwoody & Ryan 1985), a “lure of the media” (Weingart 2012) or a “deficit model” view of the public. Recently, specific characteristics in the science-media interfaces of individual research communities have received interest. However, most of these studies focused on a single research community such as climate scientists; studies applying a straight comparative approach remain rare.

In our paper we compare the relationship of scientists with the public in two broad areas of scholarship – natural and social sciences. We are interested whether natural and social scientists conceptualize their relationship with the public differently and whether they are approached by journalists in different ways. We conducted online surveys of academic researchers in Brazil (n=956) and Germany (n=1,509), using samples that comprised natural and social scientists.

While there are some striking differences between Brazilian and German researchers in general, the pattern of differences between natural and social scientists is similar. In both countries, social scientists consider scholarly communication less separated from public communication than natural scientists. They also interact more frequently with journalists and enjoy more freedom from organizational interference with their media contacts than natural scientists. Social scientists tend to be approached by journalists as “experts” in stories dealing with social problems while natural scientists are more often contacted for stories about research.

The study suggests that natural and social scientists face different challenges in PCST. The social contextualization of scientific knowledge may be a key problem of natural scientists; maintaining their identity as researcher and demonstrating the scientific basis of their expert comments on social issues may be a typical challenge for social scientists.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Science
Area of interest: Investigating science communication practices

Author: Hans Peter Peters, Research Center Juelich, Germany

Two ideal types of public communication of scientific knowledge can be distinguished: popularization of research, triggered by a scientific publication or other event within science, and provision of scientific expertise, triggered by public demand to understand a social problem such as climate change and find a solution. The corresponding roles of scientists as public communicators are “science popularizer” and “scientific expert”. The paper explores whether and how the relationship of scientists and journalists differs if scientists are interviewed by journalists as popularizers or experts.

Several surveys of scientists included a question on the thematic focus of the most recent interview with a journalist – actual research or expertise – as well as questions on the interaction and its assessment by the scientist. The analysis uses a German survey of 1,509 researchers from 16 academic disciplines covering hard sciences, social sciences and humanities. To assess whether the patterns found are specific for Germany or more universal, the German results are compared with results from other countries.

Interviews about actual research are more often initiated by the scientist or the public relations department than interviews focusing on expertise. Specialized science journalists are more involved in the popularization of research than in the communication of expertise. Researchers get more positive feedback by peers and by the management of their university or research institution for popularizing media stories than for being mentioned as experts in the media. Furthermore, they themselves rate media accounts of their research more often as professionally “useful” than media stories in which they are quoted as experts.

The paper concludes that popularization of research is stronger supported by communication activities initiated by science than the communication of expertise which depends more heavily on journalists’ initiatives. A possible decline of journalism may thus particularly affect the public availability of scientific expertise.