Should science communicators promote science?
Last month students braced the winter chill to protest against the government’s planned hike in tuition fees. Scientists, on the other hand, were able to sit comfortably by the fire, pondering how things went so comparatively well for them in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
The flat-cash deal for science does represent a 10% cut in real terms, but in contrast to cuts of over 25% for many other departments, science got off relatively lightly. Irrespective of one’s political stance regarding the role of cuts in reducing the deficit, in this instance science is clearly being prioritised above other disciplines.
The result was arguably thanks to numerous campaigns and prominent scientific voices speaking out against the cuts that Vince Cable hinted back in September. The grassroots Science is Vital campaign at its peak rallied 2000 people to protest outside HM treasury and received 35,000 signatories in opposition to science cuts. Likewise, the Royal Society strongly advised the government on the benefits of investing in science, while ex-President Lord Robert May launched a scathing attack against this “muddled political thinking”.
Among those speaking out were many professional science communicators not directly working at the interface of this debate – spreading the word through journalism and attending the protest outside HM Treasury. This is unsurprising: most science communicators enjoy science and want to see it thrive. To do so, science needs cash.
However, while science communicators may hold a personal love for science (and would be out of a job without it), is it responsible science communication to be unquestionably promoting the cause of science and science funding? Science, like any receiver of tax payers’ money, should be open to scrutiny – particularly in a time of financial austerity.
Keeping no one out of the axeman’s gaze, back in September Vince Cable asked, “can we achieve more with less?” Yet the notion that science could somehow be made more efficient was ridiculed by scientists and science communicators alike. While there is waste in science they argued this to be a necessary by-product resulting from the freedom of inquiry at the root of science’s success.
The Science is Vital campaign revolved around arguments for the “historically proven economic returns” of science. Yet the issue is not so clear cut. Economists are wary of such grand statements, with many figures based on a small number of studies, many of which were written to promote science in the first place. Science must be regarded as an institution like any other; to decry the notion that science should have to tighten its belt like everyone else as absurd does scientists no favours.
Science, nevertheless, has received the rewards of these dedicated arguments and campaigns. But as Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, declared following the Comprehensive Spending Review, “Scientists have argued that research is good for health, wealth and society and the government has trusted them on that. Now they must deliver.”
To enable scientists to deliver, the role of the science communicator is now more important that ever. The public want to see quick paybacks and solutions to the practical problems of society; while scientists raise concerns that this ‘is just not how science works’, fearing a cut in the basic ‘blue-skies’ research they regard as critical to the growth of science.
Mediating these differences, science communicators can forge the path for productive engagement between scientists and the public, enabling both science and the economy to grow. Science must justify itself more than ever, since the irresponsible, unquestioning promotion of science can only lead to a public backlash. To avoid this, science communicators must approach science with the critical-eye that taxpayers demand of any other publicly funded institution.
Thomas Lewton is an editor at Refractive Index and is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.