‘Popularization of Research’ and ‘Provision of Scientific Expertise’: Consequences of Two Modes of Public Communication for the Interactions of Scientists and Journalists

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.