The evolving practice of science communication

Science communication is on the rise – and that’s good for democracy

Peter Weingart, Stellenbosch University; Lars Guenther, Stellenbosch University, and Marina Joubert, Stellenbosch University

Until a few years ago the term “science communication” would have been misunderstood by most people – including scientists – to mean any communication between scientists.

Now countries, universities and research institutions all over the world spend big chunks of their budgets on science communication aimed at external public audiences.

A mid-sized university during the 1980s would have had a lone press officer whose job was to instruct journalists about scientists’ latest research achievements. Today such a university will boast a staff of six or even more professional “science communicators”. They produce multimedia science press releases and sophisticated infographics. They create visually engaging research magazines. Online newsletters and social media platforms are used to share achievements with the outside world.

There’s been a sea change beyond universities, too. Science festivals and weeks abound. Mobile outreach – trucks, trains and even ships – take science exhibits to people who otherwise would never come close to laboratories. In some countries there’s been a boom of popular science magazines.

How did we get here? To understand this surge of activities – which involve both governments and citizens’ groups – it’s necessary to look back more than half a century. It’s also important to untangle the motives, formats and functions of what now comes under an increasingly broad umbrella called “science communication”.

Back in time

The mid-1950s saw the birth of a science literacy movement in the US called “Public Understanding of Science”. Americans were reeling after the USSR sent a satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. The “Public Understanding of Science” initiative was designed to mobilise public support for the costly project to put a man on the moon. It was also hoped that more young high school graduates would choose to study maths, physics and engineering rather than creative writing and philosophy. This, it was believed, would help the US meet the challenges of space flight in particular and technological innovation in general.

The 1970s brought controversies about the risks of nuclear power; in the 1980s people started to fear recombinant DNA and genetically modified crops. These concerns brought about a new paradigm known as “Public Engagement with Science and Technology”, or PEST.

“Public Understanding of Science” had been based on the assumption that knowing more about science implied trust in and acceptance of science. PEST was based on the belief that there needed to be more of a dialogue between scientists and the public.

Proponents of the PEST approach understood that involving the public in scientific and technological projects was more likely to create trust. They also knew that since it was an open-ended process, ordinary members of the public could call for alternative solutions. So the scientific-technological community was replaced in the driver’s seat by the general public. That’s how it should be in democratic societies.

Democracy and science

Since then there’s been an increasing “democratisation” of science. Governments actively promote public accounting by science in a bid to secure legitimacy for the considerable expenditures of an enterprise that receives public resources but is largely opaque to the outside observer.

Of course, democratisation does not mean that ordinary laypeople now have a say about what is right in science, or what is good research and what is bad. That must remain the competence of the trained specialist, in the same way that a passenger cannot tell a pilot how to better steer his or her aircraft.

But the lay public can voice an opinion about what kind of research best meets its needs. Ordinary people may pose questions to scientists that induce them to do research not suggested by their disciplinary agenda.

This puts the scientific community in a position where it has to convince the public of two important things. First, that it’s delivering “value for money” by doing a good job and, second, that it is responsive to the general public’s needs and interests. To achieve both of these aims, scientists must communicate.

Building science communicators

There are many ways and motives to communicate: from openly doing marketing, lobbying and advertising (done by public relations experts), to critically reporting (the business of journalists), to raising interest and educating (as museums or TV science shows do), to entertaining (which filmmakers and novelists do). All of these forms are perfectly legitimate, but some benefit society more than others.

And at their best, they all bring science to the attention of the general public. This hopefully contributes to raising the information level of public discourse. That is why science communication is so popular – and why university-based science communication teaching and research programmes are flourishing around the world.

The South African government, for instance, has set up two South African Research Chairs in Science Communication. One is located at Stellenbosch University and the other at Rhodes University. One of the first projects at Stellenbosch University, where we are based, will be to explore perceptions of science in different rural communities based on distance from or proximity to particular big science projects and science in general.

An online course in science communication, attracting participants from across Africa and even further afield, has also been developed under the auspices of the Stellenbosch chair. Most of the course participants are institutional communicators or media officers at science councils or universities.

Others work for nongovernmental organisations, science centres, museums and zoos. Several scientists – keen to integrate public communication into their research – are also enrolling. This online course, the first of its kind on the African continent, attracted 180 participants in 2015. More than 50 have registered for the 2016 course, which kicks off in September.

The Conversation

Peter Weingart, South African Research Chair in Science Communication, Stellenbosch University; Lars Guenther, Postdoc in Science Communication, Stellenbosch University, and Marina Joubert, Science Communication Researcher, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


#scholarAfrica workshop: Learning and sharing about online discoverability of African research

#scholarAfrica Discoverability Workshop group photo

Great workshop on discoverability of African scholarship thanks to @openuct and @CarnegieCorp #scholarAfrica (photo credit: @iHubResearch)

Back to the office today after a very fruitful 2-day workshop on strategies to enhance the online discoverability of African scholarship. It was great to meet new people from different countries (Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Mexico, UK, Uganda and USA) and I felt really privileged for having been given the opportunity to share the experiences of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) communications team in using social media to communicate our research.

Research agencies represented included the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), TrustAfrica, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), the African Leadership Centre, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and ILRI.

The OpenUCT Initiative organized the workshop in collaboration with Carnegie Corporation.

The Twitter hash tag for the workshop was #scholarAfrica and we noted quite a buzz on Twitter on the subject of online visibility of research from Africa and related issues such as open access to outputs and datasets. We plan to keep the #scholarAfrica hash tag going, as the end of the workshop should not mean the end of the conversations 🙂

Highlights of the discussions were curated on Storify by Nanjira of iHub Research. Check out the summaries of Day 1 and Day 2We published the presentations on Zenodo (this was the first I heard of this online publishing channel which automatically assigns a DOI, thereby permanently curating the presentations — cool!)

Access the individual presentations via the links below.

And finally… some photos of the event.

Towards increased discoverability of African scholarship

Some time in January this year, I accepted an invitation to take part in a workshop in Nairobi on promoting the discoverability of African scholarship online.

Well, the 2-day workshop starts tomorrow and is organized by the OpenUCT Initiative of the University of Cape Town in collaboration with the Carnegie Corporation. It’s primarily targeted at Africa-based Carnegie grantee organizations involved in research in agriculture, health and social sciences.

Interestingly, the invitation to participate in the workshop came via a direct-message tweet from Michelle Willmers, program manager of the OpenUCT Initiative! A few tweets, emails and a Skype call later and I was all set to participate as one of the speakers. Social media is surely changing the dynamics of how we work, network and achieve results!

The Open Access movement is growing steadily  and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the organization I work for, is committed to making its research outputs freely open and accessible, so I’m happy to be contributing to the workshop as one of the speakers.

I’ll be addressing the issue of discoverability in the local context, drawing on our experiences at ILRI of using social media as part of a research communication strategy to complement our open access institutional repository.

Looking forward to it… two days of learning, networking, meeting new people and putting faces to Twitter handles!

Featured resource: African Higher Education Research Online

Today while doing some internet reading on scholarly publishing, I discovered an open access repository of research on higher education in Africa.

The African Higher Education Research Online portal is an open access archive of texts that focus on the study, practice and governance of higher education in Africa.

The collection includes research reports, journal articles, conference papers, book chapters, working papers, booklets, and policy documents. All the resources have been submitted by the authors and are reproduced with their permission.

Check it out at