Science Communication and Public Policy
Science and Development Network, United Kingdom
In this presentation I will try to place the issues that will be addressed at this symposium in a slightly broader context than they are frequently seen. The key issue we face is, who should have control over access to scientific knowledge and the terms on which that knowledge is used? One of the core political challenges facing the world today is the threat to the public domain usage of that knowledge coming from various directions, including parts of the private sector.
The central role of science in providing the base of the technology that we use in virtually all aspects of our daily lives, and which applies in both developed and developing countries, raises a question that concerns us all. Who will determine the shape of the future?
That is a rather broad and grandiose question when put it in those terms. I want to narrow it down slightly to address the more specific issue of public policy on science-related issues, including topics ranging from genetically modified crops to climate change to research on tropical diseases. I will focus in particular on the impact of science communication, a term that I use to describe the way information about science is communicated to the public, and not just within the research community.
SCIENCE, COMMUNICATION, AND PUBLIC POLICY
This argument has three main components. The first is that the way the policy on science-related issues has been going in recent years has taken a significant shift. Until recently science advice was essentially a linear affair. Governments sought advice from a relatively restricted group of advisers drawn mainly from the scientific community. This advice, once it had become integrated into the political priorities of the politicians involved, formed the basis for much of science policy, or policy about science.
More recently, however, sensitivity to growing public concern over the impacts of science on society has meant that the advice of scientists is increasingly seen as only one among a number of inputs into the policy making process. The voices of other stakeholders, which can range from environmental groups to religious organizations expressed either directly or through the mass media, have come to play an equally important role in shaping the judgment of politicians and government decision makers. Consider, for example, in recent debates
over human cloning and embryo research or genetically modified crops the extent to which public perceptions are molding government policy.
As a result science policy is no longer this linear affair but one that is based on networks of information, networks in which science communication has a vital role to play, and in which the Internet and electronic communication have come to play an important part.
The second component of this argument, therefore, is that the development of electronic communication, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have stimulated and reinforced this process. One of the strengths of the Internet is its ability to democratize access to information. We have seen this in Eastern Europe, where it helped to point the way to the downfall of political systems whose previous strength had been partly in their ability to control access to information. We also see it in the field of science policy where, at least in principle, every citizen now has the possibility of obtaining direct access to a wealth of information about the science and technology that affect their lives.
However—and this is the third component of the argument—we should not read too much into the power of the Internet. For even if it has encouraged this shift in the nature of decision making on science-related issues, it has not by itself changed the nature of the forces that control access to that information. It was people, not the Internet, who brought down the Communist states of Eastern Europe. And, at a more prosaic level, it is social institutions, not electronic technology, that control access to scientific data in the digital era.
Indeed the current debate over open access to scientific information in many ways is merely the contemporary manifestation of issues that have been around for many years. I wrote a book about 15 years ago on the nature of science and science politics in America, which had very much the same thesis, namely that we were witnessing at that point a pre-Internet battle over access to and control over scientific information.1
To summarize, my thesis has three components. First, policy making on science-related issues is going through a dramatic shift from linear information flow to networks. Second, electronic communication through the Internet is promoting and supporting this shift. But third, questions of control over and access to scientific information remain very much as they were previously, even if the form in which these issues manifested themselves has been significantly transformed.
THE ROLE OF SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN SOCIETY
To help us focus on the issue of science communication I would like to refer to one of the most significant images of the science and society debate over the last two decades. It is a picture of Agricultural minister John Gummer in May 1990 feeding a hamburger to his somewhat bemused and reluctant daughter, Cordelia. The typical caption that accompanied the picture usually read, “UK Agricultural Minister declares that there was no need to worry, British beef is safe.” The accompanying news story quoted Gummer as saying something along the lines of “British cows may be dying of mad cow disease, but I am so confident that it is not a threat to human health that I, a responsible parent, am personally prepared to stuff British beef into my daughter’s mouth.”
The rest, as they say, is history. It was not long before Gummer and indeed the whole British government had to eat their words—almost literally—and admit that they were wrong. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) can pass into the food chain with tragic consequences. Furthermore, this particular picture has come to haunt Gummer—who ironically had a relatively good record as a defender of the environment—as well as the Conservative Party and government public relations officers ever since.
What do we make of this picture both then and now? It is essentially a political picture that attempts to convey a claimed scientific certainty, namely, that British beef is safe. With the benefit of hindsight the manipulation is obvious. We are now well aware of the real function of this image, the message it was intended to convey, and the claim to scientific legitimacy on which it was intended to be based. Indeed, the subsequent realization by the British public of this particular manipulation and of the whole government handling of the BSE debacle is widely blamed for a significant drop in the public’s trust of both politicians and the scientists who advised them; and in the
process it is part of what has contributed to this shift in the nature of the science advisory process. The trust has been broken in the linear system, and has helped transform the process into a network scheme.
The use of the image in this way also presents a challenge. How do we expect readers to relate to it? In particular, how do we as journalists balance our desire to inform both ourselves and our relative constituencies about the scientific perspective on critical issues such as the preceding, with the skepticism that is or should be a central component of our professional responsibility when it comes to interpreting statements that are intended to carry the authority of scientific truth?
The issues raised by the BSE crisis in Britain illustrate the critical role played by the media in articulating the relationship between science and society. This role, and the responsibilities that go with it, concern the accurate transmission of information.
I am referring to something that is much more than what is often described, somewhat disparagingly, as the “deficit model” of the public understanding of science, namely, the idea that the public lacks adequate knowledge of the facts produced by science. It includes, first, an equal responsibility for journalists to report on the uncertainties of such knowledge. It also means that journalists have a responsibility to report equally accurately on the impacts of science and society, and the responses to such an impact.
All these things are relatively conventional knowledge within the journalistic community. Journalists are also keenly aware that achieving a proper public understanding of science is actually a two-way process that must include the scientists’ better understanding of the public. This concept is just becoming recognized within the scientific community itself. To quote the words of Alan Leshner, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a recent issue of Science: “Simply trying to educate the public about specific science-based issues is not working in this one-way information flow. Given the uncertainty in science, the best science-based strategy is not always as clear as we would like and as many in our community might claim.”2 He goes on to say that we should move beyond paternalism. We should engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science, technology, and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits. We should respect the public’s perspectives and concerns even when we do not fully share them, and we should develop a partnership. Indeed I would argue that we should go beyond these sentiments to ask how this process of developing partnership with the public is likely to work out in practice and who will be engaged in establishing it.
One system that works highly effectively in this arena is the scientific press, the area of science communicators. To see how this operates it is important to understand the extent to which the role of a journalist is not one of simply conveying the truth to the public. Journalists are not conveyor belts who report on facts any more than the role of a scientist can be defined as simply discovering scientific facts. Rather a journalist’s role is to report on significant facts and, if space allows, on the nature of the significance. “Dog bites man is not a story,” but “Man bites dog” certainly is. This is because it is so unusual that we want to know when, who, why, and how—and did the dog bite back!
In other words the task of any journalist—and science journalists are no exception—is essentially one of extracting significance from a mass of evidence, policy documents, and headline-grabbing statements from individuals and institutions who may or may not have a vested interest in their outcome. To that extent there is an important role in which the science journalist, or the science communicator, acts as a proxy for the public when it comes to interpreting and articulating the relationship between science and society or, to put it another way, between knowledge and power.
The terms “interpreting” and “articulating” are both somewhat abstract concepts. What they are intended to convey is a sense that the way the media handles science has essentially become an important constitutive component of the policy-making process on science-related issues. The media does more than just report policy choices to the public on such issues, or even report on the response of the public to the policy choices. The media also helps to frame these policy issues and the public responses to them, and this is why full access to information is so important.
THE SCIENCE AND DEVELOPMENT NETWORK
The Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net)3 is attempting to promote such goals within the developing world and show how the Internet can assist in improving access to scientific and technical information for developing countries. SciDev.Net seeks to empower people at all levels of these societies by providing access to authoritative information and informed opinion on key issues at the interface between science and society, part of the networks described previously.
At the same time, we are attempting to promote informed debate on such issues by enhancing the professional skills and increasing an awareness of professional responsibilities of all those engaged in a process that can be called science communication. The goal of this project is to empower all members of civil society in the developing world to make more informed choices on the critical decisions they face in pursuit of sustainable development.
SciDev.Net was set up at the end of 2001. It is backed by the journals Nature and Science with additional support from the Third World Academy of Sciences. The form of this support from Nature and Science is actually very important: both journals have provided free access to a select number of articles from each issue every week. Access to these articles is actually by subscription only, but as a concession they have agreed to provide privileged free access to selected articles. People can access these papers, which are relevant to the needs of developing countries, without cost on the Web site.
SciDev.Net has three main activities. First, we operate as a free access news and policy-oriented Web site that includes dossiers containing policy briefs and news and opinion articles on key topics of current interest; the news will occasionally include complete access to original scientific papers. Second, we are building regional networks of individuals and institutions that are committed to improved science and technology communication. Third, we organize workshops and other meetings and do capacity building in this field.
The Web site has news, feature opinion articles, and weekly editorials, which are relatively conventional journalistic items.
In addition, however, the Web site has two features made possible by the electronic revolution that are especially important. First, we include the dossiers, which enable us to compile current and previous information on particular topics. The second is the set of links to other scientific organizations and journals.
SciDev.Net also tries to help build capacity in science communication within the developing world in various ways. For example, the site includes information about writing a scientific paper or submitting a paper to a scientific journal. We try to get experts in the field, when possible from the developing countries, to provide this basic information.
SciDev.Net launched, as previously stated, officially in December 2001. We have been growing at a steady rate largely by word of mouth. We propagate, advertise, and communicate with people through the Internet. That is another example of how the Internet is very important to our activities.
SciDev.Net has regional networks in Africa and Latin America. There are plans to launch a network in South Asia, which will probably be based in India, toward the end of 2003. We are also talking to the Chinese Academy of Sciences about establishing a network covering East Asia, which will likely be based in Beijing. SciDev.Net is very keen to cover the Middle East and North Africa, and we also cover Southeast Asia.
As previously mentioned, SciDev.Net also convenes workshops. For example, we held a workshop on sustainable development during the World Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. Another workshop was held in Entebbe, Uganda, on science, communication, and sustainable development. This was for journalists from eastern and southern Africa, and was held in October 2002.
This raises a very important issue, as Professor Menon mentioned,4 of access by developing countries to this type of technology. It is very low at the moment, but the demand and the uses are there. SciDev.Net does not pretend to get its message across directly to the man or woman in the street, so to speak. We are getting our message to the communicators, to the people who are in contact with the people in the street, and those people do use the Internet.
In conclusion, SciDev.Net is trying to develop a new way of providing the public with access to information about science that on the one hand makes use of the exciting technological possibilities being opened by the Internet, but on the other hand uses very traditional journalistic and communication devices. We include peer review and editorial control. We maintain a clear editorial identity in what we are doing because we also believe that that is part of the essence of getting this communication across. We hope that this combination provides a valuable tool for helping to increase access to information about science and technology in the developing world.