Science communication: in search of a definition

30th Apr 2024

What is Science Communication?
How does society talk about science?
Why is it important?

What is Science Communication? How does society talk about science? Why is it important?

The expression “science communication” does not have a universal meaning. Recent evidence of how extraordinarily diverse the field is can be found in the volume Communicating Science, A Global Perspective (Gascoigne et al., 2020), the result of a unique effort to offer a comprehensive look at the history of science communication in 39 countries scattered across the planet. In the 40 chapters and nearly 1,000 pages of text representing the cultural perspectives of the global South and North, we are confronted with reconstructions and different terms to indicate the many reasons and modes of public exposure of science. Instead of “science communication” in some countries we find, for example, more often the word “vulgarization” or expressions such as “public understanding of science,” “cultivation of scientific temper” expressions that convey different views of the role of science in society.

A multifaceted set of places, practices and points of view

A few years ago, scholars Sarah Davies and Maja Horst (2016) introduced the concept of ecosystem to capture the current richness and complexity of public communication of science. It includes the set of all “organized actions aimed to communicate scientific knowledge, methodology, processes or practices in settings where non-scientists are a recognized part of the audience” [ibidem, p. 4]. Within the ecosystem there are some established niches and some emerging ones. Among the former: conference and popular books in which individual scientists and communicators are the protagonists; the mass media, with the long tradition of journalism, documentaries and programs devoted to science on TV, radio, newspapers and then the web; science museums or the more modern science centers based on experiential learning; festivals and events; communication campaigns aimed at raising public awareness of issues such as preventive health, environmental protection, and energy efficiency. Those that have established themselves in more recent decades, however, include: participatory methods for involving citizens in research and decision-making, in particular citizen science; online platforms of various types, from social media to those hosting podcasts and videos; the world of games, both digital and tabletop; science talent-shows or formats in which popularization and entertainment are mixed up; festivals, science cafes, researchers’ nights, and communication initiatives of scientific institutions.

The notion of ecosystem makes it possible to capture the heterogeneity of connections between the world of research and the multiple actors in science communication. In fact, the great diversity of participants involved in these processes, in addition to those doing research, becomes evident. It ranges from policy makers to activists, from lay people to journalists, from universities to nongovernmental associations. It also emerges very clearly that science communication is something much more multifaceted than a simple top-down transfer of knowledge aimed at increasing public appreciation for science. Goals can vary and overlap with each other. Stirring up discussions, entertaining, attempting to influence opinions, including the perspectives of non-scientists in collective choices or knowledge production, and telling stories through a variety of channels are all motivations that are now part of the characteristics of the ecosystem. In all the activities described, science communicators also take on different roles than the more classical one of translators. Information professionals, content creators, authors, editors, scientific animators, researchers and artists can indeed act as intermediaries, educators, facilitators, experts. The ways in which the public encounters science are also the most diverse: contact may happen through fascination, amusement, learning, interest in critical thinking or sense-making but also through dispute or denial. These observations bring us to two aspects less considered by tradition. The first has to do with the role that exposure to science plays in satisfying not just educational but also specific emotional needs and in shaping broader social and psychological processes. The second has to do with the development of democratic citizenship.

Science communication is “how society talks about science”

The ecosystem approach proposed by Davies and Horst not only takes all these aspects into account but also favors a cultural interpretation of the communication of science. In other words, “rather than public communication being about the transfer of certain facts — the nature of DNA, the scientific method, whether vaccines cause autism — it is instead about how particular societies or groups explain the world. (Davies, Halpern et al., 2019, p. 3). That is, it should be understood as a set of activities aimed at sense making, at the social production of meanings attributed to science, as well as the public dissemination of specific notions.

Massimiano Bucchi and Brian Trench, two of the leading international scholars in the field further emphasize the cultural approach and propose to consider science communication as “a social conversation about science” (2021). This is a broad and inclusive definition that refers to the pervasiveness of science in everyday conversations and popular culture, as evidenced by its long-standing use in film, comic books, novels, literary genres, as well as in pop and rock songs, theatrical performances, and visual arts. Instead of hierarchical approaches in which knowledge and information move from one place to another, more interactive modes are thus emphasized that include everything that is said about science in society (Bucchi and Trench, 2014), including its spontaneous use in mass culture. The quality of science communication activities, consequently, is measured not only in their effectiveness in achieving set goals through supposedly easily implemented solutions, but through the analysis of how and how much they stimulate broader conversations among different stakeholders (ibidem).

Why public communication of science is important

An extensive literature has explored the role and functions of science communication in the contemporary world to clarify its importance. Scholars have identified at least two broad types of motivations (Davies, 2020).

The first is that science communication is important for the governance of science in democratic societies. Indeed, if we believe that citizens should have a role in defining the scientific-technical foundations needed to frame and solve problems of general interest, science communication should be acted upon as a public good at the service of the community. The second refers to ethics, in the sense that sharing knowledge is the right thing to do for aesthetic, practical or economic reasons. Both motivations can again be traced back to a more cultural view. As the aforementioned Sarah Davies writes:

Both claims ultimately relate, in quite fundamental ways, to ideas about the kinds of societies we want to live in (or believe that we already do). The importance of science communication thus stems from (implicit) beliefs about science’s value to modern societies, about the nature of contemporary democracy, and about justice and fair distribution of public goods (Davies, 2020, p. 13).

What does SISSA do in the field of Science Communication

SISSA (Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati) is a post-graduate training and research centre in mathematics, physics and neuroscience. Within the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Advanced Studies, it runs one of the oldest Master’s course in science communication in Europe. Since 1993, the course has trained more than 400 students, which are researchers and professionals working in different fields of science communication, including science journalism, publishing, institutional communication, event organization, content curators. Within Pattern, SISSA is leading the development of the training course in science communication.

Bibliographical References

Bucchi, M. and Trench, B. (2021). ‘Rethinking science communication as the social conversation around science’. JCOM 20(03), Y01.

Bucchi, M. and Trench, B. (2014). ‘Science communication research: themes and challenges’. In: Routledge Handbook of public communication of science and technology. Ed. by M. Bucchi and B. Trench. 2nd ed. London, U.K. and New York, U.S.A.: Routledge, pp. 1–14.

Davies, Sarah. (2020). ‘An Empirical and Conceptual Note on Science Communication’s Role in Society’. Science Communication, 43.

Davies, S. R., Halpern, M., Horst, M., Kirby, D. A. and Lewenstein, B. (2019). ‘Science stories as culture: experience, identity, narrative and emotion in public communication of science’. JCOM 18 (05), A01.

Davies S.R, Horst M. (2016), Science Communication: Culture, Identity and Citizenship. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Gascoigne, Toss. et al. (eds.) (2020). Communicating Science. A Global Perspective. Acton, ACT, Australia: ANU press.