Science is Vital

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.

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5 thoughts on “Should science communicators promote science?”

  1. Interesting post, thanks.

    Just to check if I’ve got the right end of the stick — could one ask the question, “are there any anti-science science communicators?

  2. This article seems to assume that the only people communicating about science and its costs/benefits are science communicators. In fact there are a wealth of voices questioning the value of science (one thinks of Simon Jenkins, James Delingpole as prominent anti-science commentators). Politicians themselves (you mention Vince Cable) are not averse to questioning the value of science, especially when they see an opportunity to make some cuts. Considering the amazing contribution science has made to the wealth and wellbeing of the country and the world, it is surprising how few voices are raised in its defence. In my view this has been due to a failure of many scientists to speak up for their work in the past. If there was a better understanding of the way fundamental scientific discoveries and insights have fed into everyday life (antibiotics, MRI scans, electricity, TV, the internet, computing – the list is endless) people might take a more balanced view of the relative merits of “quick paybacks” compared to these world changing developments which take decades or centuries to accrue from basic science. Science communication still has a big job to do in ensuring that the public sees that the many technological benefits of the modern world did not just pop into existence but are based on the toil of generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It is right that science communicators should present a balanced and accurate picture of science, but at present the balance is heavily tilted against science, in my view.

  3. Great post, Thomas. I find your highlighting of Mark Walport’s remarks about ‘delivery’ most significant. In a sense, it ties science to the same consumerist thinking as other bodies like public health, arts funding and public services. It can have government largesse, but it must show calculable returns. The trouble is, as you point out, science doesn’t really work this way (nor, in fact, does cultural funding).

    Will this encouragement of a simplified cost-benefit logic to science funding eventually become a yoke around science’s neck?

  4. I think the scientist-led campaign in the run-up to the CSP last Autumn was more sophisticated and more self-aware that you give it credit for in this post. To cite just two of my own contributions – this was a letter to my MP beforehand (outlining some of the benefits of investment in science — while acknowledging the difficulty in their measurement) and this, which was a look-back over what the campaign achieved.

    No-one involved in the campaign that I am aware of was asking for unquestioning promotion of science – we were well aware of having the responsibility to make a fair case to politicians and to the people of this country.

    Walport is correct, up to a point, that scientists need to deliver – but the problem of measurement remains and he has not been forthcoming about the details. To my mind he implicitly recognises that the benefits are short and long-term, predictable (in some cases) and unpredictable in others. The challenge is to demonstrate that spending on science is worth more than just the short-term benefits. A short-termist agenda will kill curiosity-driven research to the detriment of our ability to innovate.

  5. @ Tom W. I hope no one would classify themselves as being unquestionably anti-science or pro-science, but yes I would regard, for example, Jenkins as a science communicator. I feel skeptics of science are sometimes left out of the umbrella.

    @ Tom H. True, education about the long term impacts of science is extremely important. But if the balance is tilted against science, then trying to counteract this by just promoting the historical benefits of science to society is going to more harm that good in the long run. Credibility will only be gained if scientists engage with current public concerns and acknowledge there is room for improvement.

    @ Steve. I’d say it’s necessary for scientists to have some sort of yoke, but would worry if this came in the strict form of economic growth and strictly from politicians. I think, or hope, politicians increasingly realise the broader contributions science makes to society (many of which inadvertently feed into the economy).

    @Stephen. Yes, I didn’t intend to suggest the arguments put forward by Science is Vital were no more than shouting unquestionably about how great science is, they were obviously very reasoned and supported by evidence.

    However, for scientists to deliver I do think a more critical stance is needed regarding the short-term/long-term question of ‘applied’ vs ‘basic’ research. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that there is some pretty pointless science going on out there. How to direct research beforehand is a difficult challenge, but that direction should be based on more than just curiosity.

    I like Walport’s suggestion of asking ‘important’ rather than ‘curious’ questions, and this seems to be a more justifiable use of taxpayer’s money. But I realise that without the details, this is just playing with words and raises the same problem of what an important question is.

    While only scientists have the insight to determine what the important questions are from a scientific point of view, to be socially responsible this needs increasing public and political engagement by scientists— which is beginning to happen and is undoubtedly one of the biggest achievements of the Science is Vital campaign.

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