3 August 2021
The Summary of the PCST 2021 Conference was compiled by Guoyan Wang and her doctoral student Lingfei Wang from the Science Communication Research Centre at Soochow University.
The 16th Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) Conference was scheduled to be held in Aberdeen, Scotland, UK from 26-28 May 2020. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, it was postponed to 24-27 May 2021 and held online. Its original theme was “Time, Technology and Transformation”. “COVID-19 Crisis and Science Communication” was then added, focusing on the media communication of the complexity and uncertainty of the crisis, as well as the role and impact of scientists during it. A total of 667 delegates from 50 countries and regions attended the conference, with the largest number of delegates from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States.
The conference was organized by the PCST Network in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. The three main themes were “Time”, “Technology” and “Transformation”, with three possible sub-topics under each theme. The theme of “Time” covered “Science communication practices and studies, past, present and future”; “Communicating scientific conceptions of time, e.g., cosmological, geological or biological”; and “The changing relationship over time between science and the arts and humanities”. The theme, “Technology” included “Applications of new media, data and artificial intelligence technologies in science communication”, “Communicating technology advances and their social implications” and “Technoscience as the contemporary face of scientific development”. The theme, “Transformation” was related to “Factors that shape transformations of science-society relations”, “Transforming relations between science communication practice and research” and “Widening participation in research to realize research for all”.
The virtual conference of PCST 2020+1
Faced with the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PCST committee added a new theme, “COVID-19 Crisis and Science Communication”. This new theme included three possible sub-topics: “The challenge of disseminating the complexity and uncertainty of COVID-19 and the public perception of these aspects”; “The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the status of scientists, in view of its multiple scientific perspectives and its politicization”; and “The rapid emergence of ‘star’, ‘hero’ and ‘celebrity’ scientists and their role in public health communication”. The conference offered six formats: roundtable discussion, individual paper, insight talk, linked papers, demonstration, and visual presentation. The visual presentation section was a pre-conference activity, starting on 27 April and running until 13 May, with nine sessions on topics such as citizen science, museums and art, history, and the impact of technology.
The main conference started on 24 May 2021, involving the remaining five formats, with a total of 86 parallel sessions and 308 papers.
Theme about Time
About 20 sessions and 63 papers addressed the theme, “Time”, with the first sub-topic (“Science communication practices and studies, past, present and future”) involving the most sessions, including five roundtable discussions, four individual papers, two demonstrations, and one linked paper. On the one hand, the papers gave a series of historical reviews, focusing on public understanding of science, the methods and topics of science communication research, and practices in developing countries. On the other hand, specific practices of the moment were also discussed, such as science communication education, science media and journalism, and the PCST conference itself. Interestingly, a demonstration was given, related to the “Cell Block Science” project, bringing science communication activities into Scottish prisons; the team shared the opportunities and challenges that had arisen during the implementation of this project.
Five sessions related to the second sub-topic (“Scientific conceptions of time”), involving several specific contexts, such as science fiction and criminal justice. This included a demonstration focused on the relationship between magic and science as a tool to address the changing relationship over time between science and the arts and humanities. The presenters believed that the use of magic to communicate science concepts allows for ample connection to studies in the arts and humanities. A roundtable discussion further delved into the lessons of change in the arts, humanities, and sciences.
Theme about Technology
The theme, “Technology” involved about 20 sessions and 79 papers, among which the sub-topic, “Applications of new media, data and artificial intelligence technologies in science communication”, received the most attention. Four parallel sessions focused directly on visual communication; more specifically, contemporary theatre, movies, video, cartoons, and magazines (including websites) were related to science communication and public engagement. One roundtable discussion focused on the role of online video-sharing and related platforms for science communication, with an interesting note on differences in the practices and intentions of journalists, YouTubers, scientists, scientific institutions, and others. Scenarios for the application of technology focused on both formal school lessons and informal learning spaces, such as museums. Furthermore, three papers set the scene for science communication in a new and widely popular form of entertainment–Escape rooms. Among these, one paper demonstrated that, when science was presented in the form of a challenge, players were happy to approach difficult scientific content and persist in trying to understand it in order to solve the puzzle.
In the second sub-topic (“Communicating technology advances and their social implications”), there were three sessions related to online pseudoscience or scientific misinformation, addressing its sources, characteristics, influence, and solutions. For example, one session targeted ways to overcome this type of misinformation, from both theoretical and practical standpoints; the delegates emphasized the interaction between scientists, press officers, journalists and readers.
Faced with the uncertainty and potential challenge of emerging technology, a roundtable discussion focused on the concept of “Responsible research and innovation” (RRI). RRI is conventionally framed as a way of slowing down innovation or novelty by attending to ethical matters and unintended consequences. However, in this roundtable, participants explored the possible contribution of science communication to updating narratives of RRI and re-imagining its relationship to varying forms of novelty.
Theme about Transformation
“Transformation” involved most sessions (20) and papers (102) among the four main themes, of which the third sub-topic (“Widening participation in research”) accounted for 70%. It is worth noting that, among the topics of all parallel sessions, “public” and “engagement” or “participation” were the keywords with the highest frequency. Under “Widening participation in research to realize research for all”, the discussion was concerned with public communication through academic journals, television, science theatre, scientists, science teachers, and research institutions. In general, the topics relating to engagement were about the environment (e.g., climate change) and controversial technology (e.g., nanotechnology, nuclear energy, vaccines). Some other papers talked about public engagement in paleontology, solar energy, mathematics, and health services.
In terms of forms of engagement, a demonstration explored the programs in Public Engagement Training (PETs) which were emerging all over Europe. A group of European Public Engagement practitioners and researchers gave an overview of the development of PETs over the last decade, critically reflecting on current programs and elaborating on future requirements. Another demonstration suggested co-creating a new European platform for science engagement, while a roundtable discussed the value of open science. A delegate commented on so-called ‘civil hackathons’, framing them as instruments for public engagement in science, especially for communication and engagement in technoscience. The meaning of engagement was discussed in terms of changing the public, creating social change, and empowering local communities, with three sessions on each of these aspects. Participants cited and analyzed specific cases to provide insight into how science communicators and practitioners promote more effective participatory projects.
Theme about COVID-19 Crisis and Science Communication
The new theme, “COVID-19 Crisis and Science Communication”, involved 16 sessions and 64 papers. The term, “COVID-19” appeared directly in the topic of five sessions, along with words or phrases such as “Science Communication”, “Uncertainty, Responsibility and Trust”, “Genetics”, “Controversial Issues” and “Educating Science Communicators”. Its first sub-topic, concerning the difficulty of communicating the complexity of the COVID-19 situation and the public response, focused on two groups, i.e., science communicators and the public, and mainly analyzed the presentation by the media and recognition by the public. Regarding studies of media presentation, the main methods were case study and content analysis, and topics included national health departments and social media (e.g., Facebook). These papers focused on the media communication around expertise, uncertainty, and the controversy of COVID-19. As for the public, the research focused on their understanding of relevant knowledge and their trust in media content. For example, a roundtable focused on the patterns of trust by which EU citizens acquire their science-related knowledge, and how this knowledge influences their beliefs, opinions, and perceptions.
The second and third sub-topics focused on scientists, specifically analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on the status of scientists and their role in health communication. The former was mainly reflected through the public’s trust in scientists, while the latter showed the role of scientists through their media engagement, willingness to participate, and interaction with the public. Furthermore, one demonstration discussed the training of future scientists, with the long-term goal of creating a collaborative team to work on a textbook or website for teaching science or communicating research. Notably, celebrity scientists received greater attention, with much of the relevant research using specific individual scientists as examples to analyze how they were seen by media and audiences, how their social roles changed over time, how they influenced public engagement with science and how they behaved during COVID-19. In particular, discussions considered how their interactions with the public were influenced by the intellectual climate of the times, the normative constraints of the scientific community, and media technologies.
The PCST conference, held every two years, is the most extensive and influential international conference in the field of science communication. The next conference will be held in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in the first half of 2023. In view of the impact of COVID-19 on offline meetings and international communication during the pandemic, the PCST committee has decided to add several PCST symposiums in 2024. Soochow University in China, Venice International University in Italy, and the Autonomous University of Zacatecas have been approved to host the 2024 PCST symposiums. At that time, PCST will promote international communication and cooperation through several geographically dispersed seminars.
 PCST Network. Call for proposals for PCST 2020: Time, Technology and Transformation [EB/OL]. [2021-06-04].
 PCST Network. PCST2020+1 Special call for proposals on COVID-19 crisis and science communication [EB/OL]. [2021-06-04].
Professor Guoyan Wang presided over the forum “Engaging publics in controversial science”.