Science communication: theory and models


What pushed His Excellency Enrico Fermi, acclaimed Academician of Italy entitled to a state car and driver, to leave Italy all of a sudden in December 1938 in order to reach New York, after a short stop in Stockholm for the ceremony that celebrated him as a Nobel laureate for physics, and to accept a job as a simple physics lecturer at the Columbia University?


The historian Marshall Berman wrote that living in modern times means "to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation [...] and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know".


The article proposes a reflection on science communication and on the communicative processes characteristic to the production of new-found knowledge. It aims to outline the role that sociology can play within this frame for greater understanding. The article first defines the main evolutionary trends in scientific research in recent decades, with particular reference to the emergence of new social actors. Following on from this, it will look at some of the epistemological conditions that may strengthen the sociologist's role in the cognition of scientific production. Using this as a premise, we will look at a typology for science communication and its components, as well as some of its governing principles. The conclusion of the article indicates the added value that can be gained from the use of such a model, with the particular aim of identifying indicators that allow the evaluation of scientific research in sociological terms as well as those already in existence.


If there is a peculiarity in the way of doing science and in the way of communicating science in Brazil, it is in the use of the idea of "deficit" in political and economic discourses, as well as in the discourses of socio-technical networks. Our proposal here is not to affirm or reject the existence of this deficit, but rather to understand its workings and its construction as a way of bringing about networks of interest that make use of this idea. For us, this is not an idea which is restricted to the discourse of researchers or of journalists and scientific broadcasters; there is also an echo in the general society, and in different spheres and situations. The idea of deficit with regard to scientific knowledge is functional in Brazil, in conjunction with the idea that the country itself has a deficiency in relation to developed countries. It is as if there were two levels of deficit which join together and empower each other.


The eighth convention of the PCST (Public Communication of Science and Technology) network, which took place in Barcelona this June, emphasised an increasing richness in reflection and practice with regard to several themes to do with science communication. This growing variety mirrors the different approaches gradually coming about in different cultural and geographical contexts. In particular, the Focus of this issue of JCOM concentrates on a presentation of the models of interpretation of science communication referring to the Mediterranean and South American cultural area.


In a beautiful Barcelona, bathed in sun, the 8th PCST Congress was celebrated at the beginning of June.1 Besides the magnificent location of this year, there are several other reasons to commemorate the event. The first reason is that the community of professionals and scholars interested in Public Communication of Science and Technology (science journalists and writers, scientists, sociologists, teachers, historians, science museum curators, etc.) is growing quickly.


Never have there been so much science and so much technology on so many sides as now. The expansion of scientific information in the social sphere is frankly impressive. In newspapers and movies, on television and radio, scientific ideas circulate freely every day of the week. Science is in cell phones, shampoo, compact discs, Olympic athletes' clothing, food, perfumes, and in so many places that trying to enumerate them would be insane. After all, why should it be particularly strange to speak of science and technology if scientific thought finally molds our deepest fibers? Today's society, developed or not, lives immersed in a scientific and technological culture which guides the course of the most fundamental events. Even though, of course, the common sense obliges us to admit that the majority of us are not fully conscious of its reach and consequences. Perhaps this helps to understand why we still feel a certain shame when, in a social gathering, we comment that our profession consists of spreading science or analyzing the ways in which it circulates and its repercussions in the public opinion. It may be that we live with the fear that someone will look at us strangely and with disbelief and ask us to explain what scientific communication or the social studies of science consist of or, worse yet, that we find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of rehearsing an answer to justify the importance of thinking about science in daily life.


Can (and should) there be a "Mediterranean model" of science communication? For those of us who work in the field of science communication in a country which is on the Mediterranean Sea, this has always been a question that spontaneously leaps to mind. This is because we "feel" there is something intangible in our way of communicating science that is rather similar to the way of a French, Spanish (or even Brazilian) colleague of ours, whereas it is slightly different from that of an American or British one. And yet, the more in depth this question is studied in time, the more complex the answer becomes.


The aim of the present research is to study the "collective imaginary" produced by the articles within scientific circulation, in order to understand the perception of science that is shaping among the public. It is meant to identify, based on the theoretical background of cognitive science and on a epistemological perspective, the cognitive maps that drive the analysis and the interpretation of scientific knowledge, in order to let the global sense built by single individuals' cognitions and interpretative acts arise; their paradigms of reference and the scientific imaginary being subtended. The results from this analysis have proven how important the role of collective scientific imaginary can be in a "knowledgeable society". Twelve cognitive maps have been deduced, and they represent the epistemological outlines the articles refer to. They have highlighted an ongoing general transition from mechanicist and reductionist paradigms of reference to other olistic and systemic ones, as well as the new role that technology has attained within our society and its own imaginary. What comes out of all of this, is therefore an always-tighter need for collaboration and cooperation among all the disciplines concurring to the building of our society and our science.


In a brief article published by Science1 last October, British scientists stated that the expression "Public Understanding of Science" (PUS), which was traditionally employed in Anglosaxon societies to refer to the issue of the relationship between science, technology and society, is out-of-date. It should be replaced by "Public Engagement with Science and Technology" (PEST), a new acronym that clearly invites to reconceptualise the relationship between science and the public. The new approach involves the engagement of the public or rather the publics of science, through dialogue, in particular through an open and equal-to-equal discussion between scientists and non-experts that would enable non-experts to become the actual protagonists in the scientific decisions producing social effects.


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