Science is more politicised than ever. And its communication, in an increasingly diverse media environment, has become highly complex, often relying on dozens of experts in a single institution alone. As a result, science communicators need new management qualifications such as governance and controlling, public affairs and crisis management, risk communication and public engagement. It is about time that science communication training programmes catch up with the new science context. This is why, in September 2014, the first students will attend the newly launched undergraduate course in Science Communication at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences (RWU), in Kleve, Germany.
The new RWU course is thus designed to cater for the widest possible career prospects for future graduates—be it working for a government agency, a university, a NGO, a publishing house, a news agency, a science centre, a marketing agency or in industry. We want the next generation of science communicators to be prepared for all of these options. We are aware that this approach departs from former models of education in the field.
Previously, graduates completed a postgraduate qualification in communication as an add-on to their science degree; most of them stemming from the natural sciences. In parallel, science journalism—now heavily affected by the seismic shifts in the media industry—has often been taught as a separate discipline from science communication courses. In several countries, journalism has been the only regular undergraduate training available for science communicators. This is also the case in Germany, where the new degree course is being set up. Hence, the need for a wider approach, which, I believe, is now overdue.
Notwithstanding the fact that there were science communicators before modern science as we know it, the first real professionals in the field were mostly self-trained. Then, the initial training programmes gave birth to a second generation of science communicators. These were mostly ‘hard scientists’ interested in promoting science. They embraced communication as an alternative to doing research themselves, thus leading to the hay-days of institutionalised PR and marketing.
Enter, third generation of science communicators. They differ from their predecessors in that they have a strategic awareness of the responsibilities involved in this process of societal mediation. This matters, specifically when actively communicating the ethical, legal, and social implications of science and technology—as per the meaning of the term Responsible Research and Innovation, dubbed RRI and coined by the European Commission of an essential aspect of modern science.
The new approach requires science communication to be much more reflective and open than previously.
It takes into account what scholars are describing as “disintermediation”; that is the replacement of intermediaries as we have known them—until now, mostly journalists—with new ones. The new intermediaries include scientists themselves, as featured in a new kind of crowd-sourced publication, like The Conversation, which mainly features edited articles contributed by scientists, and the multiple types of Science Media Centres (SMCs), based on the British model of SMCs, providing the established mass media with contacts among scientists, to comment on topical issues connected with science in the media.
Another trend is the “deinstitutionalisation” of science communication. Indeed, we have witnessed a shift from centralised control of institutionalised communication, driven by the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) academic arena, towards Open Science and a direct dialogue between practising scientists and their various stakeholders.
Future science communication
It is obvious that future science communication will require fundamental changes in the established structures and processes of how science is commissioned, funded and communicated.
Science increasingly crosses borders by means of international research programmes or by being funded through supra-national institutions such as the EU Commission or the United Nations. Our new degree programme is therefore designed to be ‘transcultural’ while being taught in English.
It follows an approach known as comparative communication research and training. This means that it investigates and compares the different media systems, political agendas, and research infrastructures around the world. The course will offer transnational modules such as ‘global economics’ and ‘comparative international media studies.’
To tackle major challenges that future communicators in science are likely to be confronted with, the course focuses on two key aspects. First, it hones in on new ways in which lay people are dealing with information in order to make science and technology-related decisions. And, second, it studies the socio-political responsibility to move public engagement with science and innovation upstream the knowledge-creation process.
PS: For those among EuroScientist readers who are interested in applying for the Science Communication and Bionics degree programme, applications are open until 15 July 2014. The three-and-a-half-years course is free of tuition-fees.
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