Science communication and public intellectualism: where do we stand?


What can scientists do to openly contribute to the public debate on critical social issues, and why should they embark in what is often seen by the academia as a risk-taking initiative? And how can science communicators help researchers to raise their “evidence-based voice” and speak out in public?

Coordinated by Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University and member of JCOM’s Editorial Advisory Board, a set of commentaries recently published in JCOM’s new issue offers an overview of what intellectualism and public intellectualism are, addressing how and why scientists as well as science communication academics and practitioners can become more active in speaking-out in public about critical social issues.

The topic is introduced by Dr Lamberts opening article “Science communication: frequently public, occasionally intellectual”, which “starts the discussion by exploring what a public intellectual is, arriving at the conclusion that to be a public intellectual requires the intention to enter into debates with the purpose of seeking change” (E. Weitkamp, Editorial). Following, a variety of reflections from practicing scientists, science communicators and other academics “explore the value of engaging in social debate as well as the challenges and rewards of so doing”.

It is the case for example of the contribution by Emma Johnston, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research at UNSW Sydney and Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology, titled “Why speak?”, who wonders “in an information free-for-all why should scientists bother to add their voice?”, and goes on by arguing that “there is an increasingly important role for scientists amongst the growing ranks of public intellectuals and the many who style themselves as such”.

In “Science communication and the public intellectual: a view from philosophy”, Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, reflects on how philosophers and science communicators can learn from each other about how to engage with the public, and the risks that this might involve. Randy Olson, ex-scientist and independent filmmaker, in “Evolution of a public intellectual: coral reef biologist Jeremy Jackson” by presenting the case study of a public intellectual who has managed to broaden its voice outside the academia’s ivory tower, offers interesting reflections “on ‘How do public intellectuals get their start?’ They almost certainly begin as ‘mere’ intellectuals — the public part comes later. But how? How does a studious academic go from following the media to being part of the media?”.

In “Babelfish and the peculiar symbiosis of public intellectualism and academia”, Kylie Walker, CEO of Science & Technology Australia, reflects on the importance of STEM academics who take on a public role to help citizens make better informed decisions: “While STEM academics continue to push back the frontiers of knowledge, public intellectuals equip the community with the knowledge we need to make big decisions, both for our own individual lives and for our society.”

In the past, a set of comments coordinated by Andrea Bandelli, executive director at Science Gallery International, had also addressed the topic of the role of scientists as activists. All contributions are available open access on JCOM’s website: “The blurred boundaries between science and activism”.