Scientists’ dreams: a society supporting science and respecting its autonomy

Science is closely linked with society. And yet, despite its close interdependency with society, science demands autonomy – the right to organise its discovery processes according to its own rules and some freedom to select research topics in accordance with its own agenda. Since society now widely recognises the economic and political importance of science, it has come under scrutiny. Its demands for autonomy are now contested.

The relations between science and other fields of society are constantly re-negotiated. One of the current topics concerns public participation in science governance. The Science and Technology Advisory Council of the European Commission itself, in a recent policy paper entitled “Science for an informed sustainable and inclusive knowledge society” called for citizen participation. It is seen as a way to address public concerns and to rebuild trust in science and technology. Such ideas are becoming widespread in the science policy field. However, the question is how do scientists respond to them.

In the past years, colleagues and I have conducted several surveys of scientists regarding their beliefs, preferences and experiences regarding public communication. These surveys showed that scientists are mostly positive towards public communication. They also demonstrated that scientists have surprisingly frequent contacts with lay audiences via mass media and direct encounters. And they portrayed researchers as perceiving a variety of benefits for themselves and for science in general as a result of public visibility.

The questionnaires also included items concerning the scientists’ perceptions and preferences regarding their relationship with the public. The following paragraphs summarise some results from a mail survey of biomedical researchers in France, Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Japan, and from an online survey of German researchers and US neuroscientists.

A transparent fence

In the hard sciences, more than in the humanities and social sciences, scientists conceptualise public communication as taking place in a public arena, which is seen as demarcated from the arena of internal scientific communication. Many scientists perceive a scientific norm to communicate results to the general public only after these results have been published in a scientific journal. Furthermore, they tend to view their findings as knowledge that not everybody is supposed to share.

However, this does not imply that scientists want to shield science from public inquiry. For example, they do not believe that “discussions of uncertainties about facts and models should be kept within the scientific community“. On the contrary, they clearly endorse the statement that “the public should be informed when scientists disagree about relevant issues“. Researchers from Britain and the US emphasize transparency of science for the public particularly strongly. Members of the public are assigned a role as spectator, not as a participant in science, however.

Dialogue yes, participation beware!

Scientists in Germany and the US tended to agree that “it is essential to establish communication as a dialogue between two equal partners” when communicating with the public. However, most respondents clearly disagreed with the statement that “the public’s ability to make judgments is sufficient to allow it to participate in decision-making on research policy“.

A similar ambivalent-sceptical attitude towards participation of the public “in the regulation of scientific activities and applications” was found in an international survey of biomedical researchers.

British and Japanese researchers were somewhat less opposed to public participation than German and French researchers, while US researchers took a middle position. In the British case, the weaker rejection of public participation is probably due to the “public engagement with science and technology” (PEST) movement that originated in Britain and is most influential there.

Knowledge as the key to benefits

A large majority of scientists subscribes to the core belief of the widely criticised approach known as the ’deficit model’ and expect a positive correlation between level of knowledge about science and positive attitudes towards it. In all samples studied respondents strongly agreed with the items “Greater knowledge on the part of the public leads to more positive attitudes toward science and technology” and “If the public only knew more about research, it would be more positive about science.

The positive implication of this belief—which is probably too simplistic—is that it encourages scientists to focus on scientific knowledge as the principal output of science in public communication rather than shifting to a communication style following the commercial image campaign model or neglecting the information component in the growing field of science infotainment.

A new generation of researchers?

Overall, our survey results as well as those of colleagues suggest that the majority of scientists are involved in public communication activities in some way or another. Fewer scientists probably participate in initiatives termed ‘engagement exercises’, ‘citizen science’ or ‘crowd funding’ that promise to give members of the public a more active role in science.

An interesting question is whether the interest in these activities indicates a general change in scientists’ opinions about the public and their relationship with it. For example, do younger scientists possess a more positive image of the public and are more ready to accept public participation?

A comparison of scientists’ opinions about the public by age group does not show major differences. Younger researchers do not have a stronger preference for direct communication with the public compared to communication mediated by journalists than older researchers. In addition, they do not place “more emphasis on personal encounters and dialogue with citizens rather than on media such as publications, Internet, radio and television“. In particular, they do not agree more with the demand to establish communication with the public “as a dialogue between two equal partners“. Finally, younger and older scientists alike tend to perceive the public as unqualified “to participate in decision-making on research policy“.

Science in society

Ideas to give members of the public a more active role in science were first cultivated not among researchers but in science policy and science management. They, in turn, took up ideas developed by social scientists in the Science & Technology Studies field. Nevertheless, among many researchers the concept of public engagement is welcomed. They perceive deficits of the classical one-way popularisation of science and the reliance on mediated communication. But researchers largely understand ‘public engagement’ not as a set of new goals but as a toolbox of new instruments to advance the old dream of scientists. This dream involves a society supporting science and appraising its results, but respecting its autonomy. Whether the attempt to use the new instruments for old goals is successful or not, is questionable. Engaging in closer interactions with the public might have repercussions on science that are not anticipated. For media communication, sociologist Peter Weingart has coined the term “medialisation of science” pointing to a possible loss of autonomy by science’s interest-driven move towards the general mass media.

Such repercussions can either be seen as legitimate public influences on the governance of science and knowledge or as threats to scientific integrity and quality. It all depends on each scientist’s concept of science and their level of trust in the public. In reality, money and political power may be more immediate threats to scientific autonomy, and alliances with the public may well serve as a resource to counterbalance influences from these fields.

Hans Peter Peters

Forschungszentrum Jülich, Institute for Neuroscience and Medicine, section Ethics in the Neurosciences, Jülich, Germany

Featured image credit: Forschungszentrum Jülich

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