Policy-making, communication and governance of science


NASA has decided to cut by 50% the next two-year budget for the Astrobiology Institute (NAI), and for all of the studies on life in outer space. This reduction follows an announcement made by Dr Michael Griffin, the Administrator of the space agency of the United States Government when, in addressing the Mars Society last summer, he clearly stated that xenobiology studies are marginal to the mission of NASA.


We inhabit an age in which economic progress in the European Union is equalized to more European research and better communication of that European research to the public. In highly developed Western democracies this implies an important role for the public as well as the mass media, both actors in a transforming public sphere. Beyond a call for more communication and more scientific literacy, the discourse has shifted to a call for more engagement and more participation on behalf of the citizen. There is a widespread sentiment however that the discipline of science communication is at a crossroads. In this paper it is argued that in a context of life politics and an increasing displacement of politics, one has to account for the trajectories of issue formation and the detours of public-ization to understand the dynamics of techno-scientific issues.


One can no longer rely on the presumption that scientists comply with the Mertonian value of disinterest and assume that they always tell the truth when spreading the results of their research projects. This can be rightly considered as the gist of the four-page report submitted to the board of the American journal Science by the committee chaired by the chemist John Brauman, from the Stanford University, and comprising three members from the Senior Editorial Board of the same journal, two eminent biologists specialised in stem cell research and a top editor from the other major general press medium of the Republic of Science, the British journal Nature.


In last times scientific PR activities are increased by number and quality. Especially in United States and, more recently, in Europe all the most important research institutions and universities have been equipped with communication officers able to circulate their own information through mass media. This is undoubtedly a positive news for science. In spite of this, it’s necessary to think about which effects can be created by marketing activity on scientific communication. In this commentary we asked some scientific professionals to tackle these problems from different points of view.


The American particle physics community is in jeopardy and may end up drowning in a boundless sea trying to grasp at non-existing funds, dragging US physics and science as a whole to the bottom. This is a price the most powerful and high-tech country of the world cannot afford, as warned by the editors of a report published in late April by the National Academy of Sciences1. Behind so much alarm is the International Linear Collider (ILC) – a large particle accelerator facility which, according to the report, should be built on American territory, if research on the elementary constituents of nature is to survive in the United States. The ILC will probably cost a total of five hundred million dollars in the first five years, whereas billions will have to be invested in the subsequent seven years. Hardly impressive, however, if compared with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), the biggest and costliest machine ever conceived in the history of science. Devised to describe the first instants of the universe, as many will recall, the SSC project was severely hampered by political and bureaucratic plots in 1993, when the Clinton administration decided to halt work on the accelerator, after ten years and approximately two billion dollars already spent.


The debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution is a unique case for observing some particular ways in which science is perceived and experienced in society. It is a dispute which is really not very scientific at all, since it ultimately derives from the attempt to discredit a corroborated scientific explanation (and to limit its teaching) by fundamentalist fringe groups of religious and political movements of various extraction. However, it is undeniable that the clash between creationists and evolutionists must also involve, in a critical and self-reflective way, the communicative weaknesses of science and its inability to assert itself as a widespread and fully shared culture, as was also stressed by the Nature magazine in April 2005. With an international viewpoint, ranging from the United States to Europe, from Australia to Italy, in this dossier we try to make a summary investigation of the current state of the debate, with a particularly attentive eye on the communicative strategies that contend in the two fields.


If we wish to attempt an initial analysis of the inquiry on the communication of science in Brazil, India and China that JCOM proposed in its three most recent issues, we should paraphrase Chinese science and science-fiction writer, Yan Wu: even though these three countries are emerging in the fields of economy and science, and are now part of a wide group of communicators, promoting numerous methods to divulge information, they don't yet have a sound theory on the communication of science to the public. This is not an insignificant problem because according to David Dickson, the director of SciDev.Net, democratic dialogue on scientific matters is crucial to modern societies. However, it is difficult to propose the highest possible level of democratic dialogue on science topics without having a sound theory about the communication of science. In addition, the difficulties increase in those countries where developing economies and systems of science are both new and impetuous, as is the case of Brazil, India and China.


How does knowledge sharing affect scientists' everyday work in developing countries? And how important is it for the development not only of new scientific research, but also for improving the living conditions of local inhabitants? These are the questions that a group of scientists met to discuss during an international workshop on Knowledge Sharing for Local Development in the South held in Trieste, Italy (4-6 July 2005). Based on their personal experiences, their thoughts and opinions create an interesting insight into new practices for the public communication of science, medicine and technology from a point of view that is often under-estimated: the one of the scientists themselves. The workshop, organized by the Third World Network of Scientific Organizations (TWNSO) and the United Nations Development Programme's Special Unit for South-South Cooperation (UNDP-SSC), showcased 15 case studies that utilized a variety of knowledge sharing methods, and, in doing so, highlighted the critical role that knowledge sharing plays in sustainable development. For more information: http://www.twnso.org


While knowledge-society is developing all around the world, science seems to be loosing its historical prestige in public perception, scientific vocations are declining among young people, "limit" on science is common subject of daily politics, research freedom is questioned in front of public good, scientists are dragged in front of public opinion. As a consequence, scientists are to be skilled in science communication. But communicating science is no more matter of "translating" scholar knowledge into lay language (popularization); it is mainly matter of crossing barriers of fundamental attitudes, understanding daily-life ends, sharing future scenarios and cultural values, becoming responsible for the societal dimension of science. Moreover, while confronting the coming Big Convergence (among nanosciences, bio-medical sciences, information and communication-sciences, neuro-cognitive sciences), science itself is called to cross barriers among disciplines, distinctions between pure and applied science, academic and industrial research, science and technology, etc. However, such crossovers are challenging for present education of scientists. The governance of the democratic knowledge-society not only demands more scientific education among citizens, but also a general revision of highest scientific curricula. What are the goals for educating scientists to public responsibility and participation? What are conceivable ways for joining the "two cultures" and integrating curricula? What cross-fertilizations are conceivable between natural and social sciences, scientific and humanistic education, specialised and more general formation?


Internal scientific communication and public communication of science and technology are growing in Brazil at a good pace, along with scientific productivity. In this Focus we will try to analyze the debate on standard or alternative models of communication of science that can be seen in the practice of science journalism and popular science in Brazil.


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