Science is not fun

Opinions personals de membres del CEHIC i alumnes de postgrau

nov. 29 2009

How to communicate science

Posted in General |

Down with the deficit model! Nobody ever formulated it this way yet this slogan sums up at best the trend in science communication over the past twenty years. Deficit model? To outsiders this may sound like financial theory. Yet what this model represents is the idea that the general public does not know enough about science. Therefore its deficit in knowledge has to be remedied by science popularization. Sometimes it is also labeled the top-down-model: knowledge is distributed from above (science) downwards to an ignorant public.

The serious flaws of this model have been pointed out many a time. It is hierarchical and therefore tends to be undemocratic. It is one-directional and hence does not take into account that knowledge (from amateurs, collectors, technicians, farmers, indigenous people etc.) might also travel in the other direction. And last not least the model is simplistic: scientific knowledge is communicated on very many different layers. Already the talk between colleagues in the laboratory is a first step in “popularizing” it. Then there is the scientific the discipline, the scientific community at large, the interested public and the general public – at least half a dozen different layers. Where specialist communication ends and popularization starts is often very difficult to determine.

Massimiano Bucchi, a sociologist of science from the University of Trento (Italy) has described the criticism of the deficit model very well in many books and articles of the past fifteen years. Now he says: Long live the deficit model! Well, he did not exactly put it in this way, but he made clear that we better accept it – as ONE form of science communication.

Bucchi spoke at the SciCom09 two weeks ago, a two-day conference in Vienna that brought together 250 science communicators from very different backgrounds, including the sciences itself, science studies, the media, museums, science-PR and science policy.

Most of these people would not have needed any explanation of what the deficit model is. They have been actively involved in numerous initiatives to engage with the public on scientific issues to address the deficits of the deficit model.

Bucchi himself identified not one but two alternative approaches to the deficit model, based on dialogue and participation. The dialogue model emphasizes that the implications of research for society have to be addressed. It is context-oriented not content-based. Citizens and their questions about genetic engineering, their worries about atomic energy and their experiences with new forms of medical therapies (to give but a few examples) should be taken serious. Dialogue is obviously a two-way-communication, it is iterative, not a one-way, one-time form of communication as in the deficit-model. This model has been tried out for example in so called consensus conferences where “simple” citizens and scientists sit down together for an extended period of time to come up with suggestions on whether to allow stem cell research on embryos or not.

The participatory model (often called “civic science”) goes even further. According to this model society itself should set the aims and the agenda of research. What kind of research on nano-technology do we want? Which diseases should be investigated primarily? This model is content and context-based. Scholars speak of the “co-production” of knowledge by science and society.

Bucchi’s Solomonic solution: all three models have their own merits. A few years ago this may have sounded like heresy. Yet in Vienna Bucchi’s suggestions were met with approval: We should ask under which conditions does the deficit model work he suggested. Some times it is simply the best solution to explain new insights in a simplified way. Not all top-down-communication is necessarily bad. The more society is affected by the research in question and the more the science itself is controversial the more dialogue and participation there should be.

I can only agree with Bucchi. The deficit model has been red rag for many of us science communicators. Yet all our well meaning, progressive and politically correct arguments only carried so far. It is simply more realistic to acknowledge a multitude of models at work. And as Bucchi pointed out himself: these three models do not represent a chronological sequence with the deficit model representing an outdated past. They coexist and have coexisted for some time. And there are no simple instructions for science communicators. “You can’t choose a pattern of communication”, as Bucchi insisted.

I think I can live with that. There is no choice anyway. And in a way it takes a good bit of the pressure out of the fight against the bedeviled deficit model. No need to be desperate any more!

Well, my Spanish colleagues sometimes tend to be polemical when we discuss these issues. Of course the deficit model is not obsolete, they exclaim. In our country it has not even been questioned!

Well, I somehow doubt that. Science communication is booming – not only in the German lands: This Monday and Tuesday  the Universitat Pompeu Fabra will host a conference entitled “Comunicar Ciencia en Red” in Barcelona organized by the Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología (FECYT).

Oliver Hochadel

For this text in Catalan see here.

This entry was posted on diumenge, 29 novembre, 2009 at 23:47 and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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