Public Understanding of Science

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Concern for the public understanding of science constitutes a field of teaching and research focused on the communication of science and technology to the non-scientific public. As science, technology, and society become increasingly intertwined, public communication concerning science and technology is of ever more obvious importance to relations between science, technology, and ethics.

Basic Issues

Strong belief in the social importance of scientific and technological knowledge is part of the professional heritage of scientists and engineers. But to a significant portion of the general population, regardless of educational level, many scientific and technological developments remain mysterious. Such mysteriousness arose originally both from the unique powers of science as well as the specialization of scientific knowledge. It easily degenerates into either excessive faith in or mistrust of scientific-technological developments, attitudes that in turn become a challenge for relations between scientific-technological knowledge and the public. This is especially true because even in the presence of irrational and easily manipulated faith and fears, the enormous powers of science and technology call for control by democratic decisions, the ultimate intelligence of which sometimes depends on a measure of scientific and technological literacy. The public understanding and communication of science have become topics of increasing concern since the 1960s as public attitudes to science became more ambivalent than the overweening optimism that reigned immediately after World War II.

For a variety of reasons, increased public understanding of science has been seen as preferable to a strict separation between science and the public. These reasons include: benefits to science, economic growth, national power and influence, participation by individuals in democratic societies, increased work skills, skills for public policymakers faced with issues that have scientific and technological dimensions, and intellectual, aesthetic, and moral benefits (Thomas and Durant 1987). There is mild consensus that the front-end loaded approach to science education needs supplemental adult education. But contention remains on such factors as how to conceive of "the public" (Miller 1983), how to measure "understanding," and what specific responsibilities are apportioned to scientists, engineers, and members of the public. A few even contend that increased public understanding may damage science and technology policy decisions (Trachtman 1981). Others fear the movement will foster a flattening scientism, or that it is solely motivated by scientists' wish for more public money.

The public communication of science and technology includes, in its widest sense, all of the means, manners, and sites that promote an interaction among science, technology, and the public. The media play an important role in the diffusion of scientific-technological information and in the analysis of the results, limits, benefits, and risks of technoscience. Popularization opens science and technology communication to new voices, to new information generators, and to new critics. But despite a growing acceptance of such activities by the scientific community since the 1980s, popularization is still rarely encouraged or rewarded by academic institutions. But simple linear, one-way, hierarchical models of communication processes are slowly being replaced with more nuanced representations of complex interchanges between scientists and various publics (Gregory and Miller 1998).

Scientists and engineers have been transformed, intentionally or not, into communicators, active participants in public debates, and spokespersons of scientific-technological knowledge. Some professional codes of ethics reflect the nature of new responsibilities brought on by these roles. In some senses there is a clear distinction between the roles of researcher and communicator. Technoscientific communicators must be able to set their knowledge in novel contexts, using different jargon, and often on short timescales, and be more aware of ethical, legal, and societal implications. But in another sense, both roles require respect for others, awareness of personal biases, and the formation of reasonable arguments. Programs for training technoscientists to communicate about their work in a clear and effective way are growing.

Increasingly researchers contend that the communication of scientific-technological knowledge should not be an attempt to achieve the exclusive goal of gaining the confidence of the public in scientific-technological matters. Rather, the main goal should be to make the public participants in these matters. David Layton and others (1993) argue that the lack of public understanding of science is often conceptualized in terms of a paternalist "deficit model" in which passive lay consumers of knowledge have cognitive gaps (i.e., ignorance) that need to be filled by the producers of expert objective knowledge. They propose an "interactive model" that rejects the objectivity of expert knowledge, the passivity of nonexpert consumers, and the homogeneity of the public. Science is interpreted as an interactive partner that should be responsive to diverse, context-dependent societal demands—where credibility is more important than objectivity. Many agree that this contextual and interactive approach is an improvement over the deficit model, but it is important to recognize and accommodate the knowledge asymmetries that necessarily remain between experts and the public (Miller 2000).

These newer models capture the continuous process of mutual and reciprocal construction between various technoscientific and societal communities. The process is a dynamic one of negotiating the meaning and worth of scientific-technological knowledge involving different actors. The social context and networks of people influence, in turn, the manners of perceiving this knowledge.

Most policy issues in complex, modern societies reveal the attributes of "post-normal science" (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993) characterized by uncertainty, because there is no consensus concerning values, there are many conflicts even about the facts of the matter, and it is necessary to make urgent decisions. Post-normal science provides, in this sense, a fairly coherent explication of the necessity for greater participation in political-scientific processes. This also means that, in order for the public to gain a clear understanding of the potential and limitations of science, an inclusive dialogue will move much of the backstage scientific disagreements into the forefront (Miller 2000). Clearly the resultant understanding will not be a noncritical appreciation or acceptance.

Research Programs

The first public understanding of science research program emerged in the United States in the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik I (1957) and fears that U.S. students were not learning sufficient science. The Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) at Harvard University, headed by Gerald Holton, F. James Rutherford, and Fletcher Watson, spearheaded development of new, more engaging physics curricula for both high schools and colleges that focused on the practice of science and included a measure of the history and philosophy of science. The National Science Board followed this work with the commencement in 1972 of the biennial "Science Indicators" surveys to gauge knowledge of and attitudes about science. In the 1980s, broader science education reforms were initiated. One example is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061, which began in 1985 (the most recent year in which Halley's comet appeared) and constitutes a long-term initiative to advance literacy in science, mathematics, and technology so that by 2061 (when Halley's comet makes its next appearance) fundamental change will have been achieved. By the 1990s the term public understanding of science had largely been replaced in the United States by concerns for scientific literacy and to some extent technological literacy. It was also argued that science, technology, and society (STS) education had an important role to play in developing such literacy in the non-scientific public.

Other public understanding of science research programs appeared in Europe. In the United Kingdom, especially, promoting the public understanding of science has been a major activity that traces its lineage back to the creations of the Royal Institution (1799) and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831). For instance, according to its charter, the Royal Institution—which is not to be confused with the Royal Society—was founded for "diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life." It was at the Royal Institution that Michael Faraday in 1826 initiated the Friday Evening Discourses (for adults) and his famous Christmas Lectures on science (for young people).

The more proximate origin, however, was a decision of the Royal Society in 1985 to establish a working party to examine the extent and nature of the public understanding of science and its adequacy for an advanced democracy. The resulting Bodmer Report (1985) led to establishment of the standing Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) and a continuing series of reports and initiatives. A 1993 white paper titled "Realising Our Potential" further confirmed the commitment of the United Kingdom to the public understanding and communication of science.

In February 2000 a select committee of the House of Lords published a report titled Science and Society that reflected recent changes in the "deficit model" interpretation of the science communication problem and the associated belief this could be remedied by more scientific-technological knowledge. This report reconceptualized the relationship between science and society in a way that emphasized contextual and interactive approaches. It led to proposals to replace "Public Understanding of Science" with "Public Engagement with Science and Technology" (PEST)—and in 2003 to a reorganization of COPUS as a national umbrella organization. A similar contextual and audience-centered approach arose slightly earlier from research performed in the United States (Lewenstein 1992).

The European Union has conducted two major studies that centered on determining the level of knowledge and attitudes of the population. Is the public knowledge of science increasing? Not much, to judge from the Eurobarometer 1992 and 2001 surveys in which interviewers used comparable tests. Although nearly half of all Europeans (45.3%) declared in the 2001 survey (European Commission 2002), "I am interested in science and technology," one in two of them also believe that they are not well informed. In 2001 the European Commission established a "Science and Society" program to promote scientific education and culture structured in thirty-eight actions. It underlined the importance of improving the channels of communication. These efforts are also bolstered by the European Collaborative for Science, Industry, and Technology Exhibitions, which include 300 member institutions and attract over 30 million visitors annually.



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Public Understanding of Science

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