Natural and social scientists relate differently with the public and take roles in different kinds of media stories. Evidence from surveys in Brazil and Germany

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