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“Science Communication Is How Society Talks About Science”

Professor Massimiano Bucchi

The increasing amount and spreading capacity of online disinformation related to critical sociopolitical issues, such as vaccines or climate change, coupled with the ongoing global health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic have all made it painfully clear that we need to become more adept at communicating science within society. Seeking to dissect the importance of increasing and improving communication channels between science and society, we talked with Massimiano Bucchi, Professor of Sociology of Science and Communication, Science and Technology at the University of Trento and one of the leading European scholars on the science of science communication.

Professor Bucchi, together with his colleague Brian Trench, defines Science Communication as “the social conversation(s) around science” and he explains in more detail what this definition encompasses. While he certainly believes that organisations should devote more resources training experts in science communication, he also believes that there should be an increased focus on “developing communication and engagement activities that are grounded on the  theoretical and empirical literature about science communication.”

 

Unfortunately, a representation of the public as hostile, sceptical and ignorant is still widespread among policy makers and experts, supporting a paternalistic and authoritarian vision of science communication and of science in society.

 

Question: You have been working in the field of science communication for many years, and you are now the Director of the International Master programme SCICOMM at the University of Trento. Where did your interest in the field of science communication originate from?

Massimiano Bucchi: As a sociologist, I think it is not possible to understand contemporary societies without taking into account the increasingly relevant role of science and technology. I am interested in science communication as one of the keys to study science in society dynamics and their transformations.

 

Q.: In a recently published essay you co-authored with Brian Trench, you define science communication as “the social conversation(s) around science.” Can you briefly elaborate on this definition?

M.B.: Science communication as social conversation is a broad, inclusive definition: science communication is “how society talks about science”, including everyday stories about science on radio programmes, in social networks, in artists’ studios, in cafés and bars. Add to that the novels, pop and rock songs, theatre and comedy performances that give presence to science in public and popular culture and in everyday life.

This view emphasizes a mode of interactive communication that is set in contrast with dissemination or other hierarchical modes, and a concept that embraces all that is being said on a certain matter in society. Our inclusive definition of science communication not only validates activities such as science cafés and science comedy that are oriented to pleasure, but also recognises as part of the wider practice of science communication the ‘spontaneous’ use in popular culture of images and ideas from and related to science.

 

“In many cases, communication by scientific experts (and sometimes even by research institutions) has been guided mostly by personal goodwill and inclination, without much consideration given to the extensive literature available on this topic, to data on public perception and audience intelligence .”

 

Q.: Why do we need experts specialising in science communication?

M.B.: We certainly need resources trained in science communication, particularly for research organisations. The point is not so much teaching practical science communication skills, or training science journalists (for whom, unfortunately, there are very few jobs) but developing communication and engagement activities that are grounded on the now vast and profound theoretical and empirical literature about science communication, its actors, processes and audiences.

 

Q.: In a 2010 commentary piece, you argued that science communication “is not (yet) established as an academic discipline but that [it] could emerge as a discipline with strong interdisciplinary characteristics.” Do you think this has changed over the last decade?

M.B.: Yes, the field has become more structured and established. But the importance of high quality science communication, which cannot be improvised or left to the individual talent or good will of natural scientists or general staff has still to be understood in many research and policy organisations.

 

I am not sure misinformation is the main challenge, at least in the narrow way in which it is usually defined through terms like “fake news”. The broader, central challenge is the quality of science communication: how to improve it, how to reward it, how to distinguish it.”

 

Q.: What do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated about what is done right, and what still needs to improve in the way we communicate science? What would you say is the main impact that the pandemic has had in the field of science communication?

M.B.: We have been through the most spectacular science communication experiment in human history. Several international studies found citizens to be in general attentive to communication about the pandemic provided by health institutions and mostly sceptical of social media, with trust in institutions playing a key role. 

The unprecedented exposure of expert sources across the media has found many institutions unprepared to deal with such responsibility. In many cases, communication by scientific experts (and sometimes even by research institutions) has been guided mostly by personal goodwill and inclination, without much consideration given to the extensive literature available on this topic, to data on public perception and audience intelligence 

 

Q.: What are effective ways in which science communicators can contribute to the fight against scientific disinformation (i.e. on topics like anti vaccination or climate change denialism)? 

M.B.: I am not sure misinformation is the main challenge, at least in the narrow way in which it is usually defined through terms like “fake news”. The broader, central challenge is the quality of science communication: how to improve it, how to reward it, how to distinguish it from low quality, improvised science communication with unclear aims and limited intelligence of the context. Another long-term, educational challenge is building awareness for the quality of information and its value and cost (not just about science) among citizens.

Unfortunately, a representation of the public as hostile, sceptical and ignorant is still widespread among policy makers and experts, supporting a paternalistic and ultimately authoritarian vision of science communication and of science in society. As the literature from the past two decades clearly shows, this representation largely reflects unfounded prejudices.

 

Q.: What advice do you have for experts that wish to go in the science communication field? 

M.B.: Study and read broadly: history of science, sociology, psychology, literature.
 

Q.: Many creative formats, such as Nerd Nite, Pint of Science, or Long Night of Museums have been established to communicate science in a fun and innovative way, mixing knowledge with entertainment. What is your opinion of such formats? 

M.B.: The idea that the format shapes or guarantees the quality of the content today is very popular but probably misleading. Some of the content hosted within such formats may be more interesting or fun. However, we should look at the long-term consequences of such formats in terms of audience perception. Do they convey an idea that science – and science communication – can be easily and quickly improvised? This may not be a very constructive message, particularly for younger generations. 

 

Professor Massimiano Bucchi will be one of the panelists at this year’s Future of Science Communication Conference 2.0, organised by Wissenschaft im Dialog in partnership with ALLEA. The conference will take place in Brussels on 26 April 2022.

 

About Massimiano Bucchi

Massimiano Bucchi (Ph.D. Social and Political Science, European University Institute, 1997) is Full Professor of Science and Technology and Society and Communication, Science and Technology at the University of Trento and Director of the International Master  programme SCICOMM.

He has been visiting professor in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania. Since 2018, he is director of the Master in Communication of Science and Innovation. He is the author of  several books (published in more than twenty countries) and papers in journals such as Nature, Science, PLOS ONE. Among his books in English: Science and the Media (Routledge, 1998); Science in Society (Routledge, 2004); Beyond Technocracy (Springer, 2009); Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2 eds. 2008, 2014, with B. Trench, Routledge) and the 4 vols. anthology The Public Communication of Science (Routledge, 2016). He has been the editor of the international peer reviewed journal Public Understanding of Science (Sage, 2016-2019) and regularly contributes to newspapers and TV programmes.

Recently published articles by Massimiano Bucchi

To boost vaccination rates, invest in trust

Rethinking science communication as the social conversation around science

Public Perception of COVID-19 Vaccination in Italy: The Role of Trust and Experts’ Communication

 

Cross-Cutting Activity on Science Communication Conference

The Final Conference on 23 June will take stock of current trends and best practices on how to communicate science to policymakers and citizens, and how to include science communication activities within collaborative, interdisciplinary research programmes. The conference will present the results of the CCA on Science Communication and explore practical solutions for integrating science communication more broadly within the European eco-system of science and innovation.

Future of Science Communication Conference: Interactive Portal Now Available

On 24-25 June 2021, ALLEA partnered with Wissenschaft im Dialog to organise the Future of Science Communication Conference. Over 1000 participants joined virtual workshops, panels and lectures that sought to find ways to make science communication more effective and impactful. The event’s documentation is now available online in an interactive portal.

 

The portal allows people to revisit many of the 3 keynotes, 6 panels, 10 workshops, and 3 lightning talk sessions that were held throughout the conference, as well as to view the posters depicting the main talking points of each session.

The portal is arranged topically based on the main themes that were discussed throughout the two-day conference. Some of the themes include Fake News, which features a panel discussion with Prof. Dan Larhammar, Chair of ALLEA’s Scientific Committee on Tackling Science Disinformation; and Science & Politics, which features a panel discussion moderated by ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno. Other themes covered in the conference that can be explored in the portal are Research & Practice, Trust in Science and Citizen Science, each with their respective audiovisual content.

You can also find demographic information, such as geographic location and professional background, of the 1109 attendees of the conference in the Info & Sources section.

The international conference brought together actors from research and practice of science communication. Its goal was to sensitise the various stakeholders from science, science communication and politics to the respective challenges and to provide an impetus for stronger networking and transfer between the ‘science of science communication’ and European practitioner communities.

You can read our summary of the conference here and watch all the complete panels here. You can also read the summaries of Day 1 and Day 2 of the event published at the German science communication portal Wissenschaftskommunition.

 

Future of Science Communication Conference: Moving Forward Research & Practice

How can we connect research and practice in the science communication field? How can science communication help make science more trustworthy? What lessons have we learned on the relationship between science and politics during the Covid-19 pandemic? Over 1000 participants joined two days of digital discussions and workshops to tackle these and more questions at the Future of Science Communication Conference.

After a year of planning and curating, the event took place in digital format on 24-25 June, co-organised by ALLEA and Wissenschaft im Dialog, the organisation for science communication in Germany and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the scope of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The international conference brought together actors from research and practice of science communication. Its goal was to sensitise the various stakeholders from science, science communication and politics to the respective challenges and to provide an impetus for stronger networking and transfer between the ‘science of science communication’ and European practitioner communities.

Attendees could enjoy three keynotes and six panels, participate in ten workshops and attend three lightning talk sessions, a poster session and a matching session. All sessions were related to one of five topics: Science & Politics, Trust in Science, Target Groups of Science Communication, Open Science & Citizen Science, and Fake News & Disinformation.

“We are at a Fork in the Road moment in science communication.” – Mike Schäfer (University of Zurich)

From Science Communication to Trust in Science

Day one started with welcoming words from Thomas Rachel MdB (Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and the ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno, before featuring two keynotes by Mike Schäfer (University of Zurich) and the Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission Nicole Grobert (University of Oxford), who shared input from their scientific and political perspectives.

Schäfer presented an overall analysis of the science communication field with three main questions: how can we move forward, what is going well, what is not going so well. His take-home message was to recognise that science communication is in a “Fork in the Road” moment. Institutions, scientists and communicators should work together to push forward and scale up the synergies between practice and research. For instance, he proposed to increase “inreach” into science: motivate, train, support, valorize and sensitize scientists for societal demands.

The Chief Scientific Advisor Nicole Grobert added a science advice perspective to the discussion and provided insights on how to communicate emergency and strategic science advice. Particularly, she suggested to follow four key questions when communicating science advice for policy:

  • What we know
  • What we don’t know
  • What is uncertain
  • What cannot be known

The discussions continued in the afternoon with the panel “Trust in Science: nurtured, built or earned?”, moderated by Dr. Birte Fähnrich (Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences/Zeppelin University) and with speakers Rainer Bromme (University of Münster), Maria Baghramian (University College Dublin/PERITIA), John Besley (Michigan State University) and Tracey Brown (Sense About Science).

The debate focussed on how to create a concept of trust in science useful for science communication. Speakers debated how to frame such debate for practical approaches, from focusing on the causes of distrust to understand the importance of trustworthiness in science. Their advice to the science communicators was:

  • Make the right questions about science (Brown).
  • Talk about your honesty, good intentions, competence (Besley).
  • Explain the process of science (Baghramian).
  • Foster epistemic trust (Broome).

“The infodemic in fact preceded the Covid-19 pandemic by many years” – Cissi Askwall (VA Public & Science)

Are we living an “infodemic”?

The second day was kicked off by our third keynote speaker, Cissi Askwall, sharing her perspectives from science communication practice, who argued that the “infodemic in fact preceded the Covid-19 pandemic by many years”.

Friday’s first panel “Fake News & Disinformation: A pandemic of its own?” developed further this question. The debate featured Natali Helberger (University of Amsterdam), Dan Larhammar (ALLEA/Royal Swedish Academy) and Philipp Lorenz-Spreen (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and was moderated by journalist Kai Kupferschmidt. Panellists discussed digital media literacy and the importance of including schools in the debate on fake news. Lorenz-Spreen added: “We cannot rely on the idea that with the next generation and digital natives problems with fake news will disappear. We can see even university students today can be victims of fake news.”

In a pre-recorded impulse video, Dietram A. Scheufele (University of Wisconsin-Madison) challenged common wisdom on the relevance of disinformation in today’s science communication debates: “There is very limited social scientific evidence, if any, to suggest that misinformation directly connects to more pro-social behaviours, for instance, physical distancing or getting vaccines when available”. The moderator Kupferschmidt provided additional thought-provoking ideas and key takeaways on a Twitter thread:

Friday also featured a panel discussion on science and politics moderated by ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno. The panel included Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius (Alfred Wegener Institute), Dr. Janusz Bujnicki (International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw), Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam) and Dr. Bella Starling (Vocal / Wellcome Engagement Fellow / Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust). A key question that centred the debate was: What do policymakers want from scientists? Ortwin Renn had some suggestions:

In the final panel discussion, panellists touched on the question whether there is a gap between research and practice in science communication. Brian Trench (Dublin City University/PCST Network) asked whether instead we are overstressing this disconnection between the science of science communication and science communication practice. He also presented his manifesto for a future of science communication that is authentic, engaged, open, surprising, uncertain, ethical, inclusive, unfinished and interpreting.

“Science Communication is about interpreting the meaning of science for people” – Brian Trench (Dublin City University/PCST Network)

SAPEA and PERITIA workshops

Two ALLEA projects also found space in the programme. The workshop “Communicating microplastics risk: Balancing sensation and reflection” was hosted by SAPEA and featured Bart Koelmans (University of Wageningen), Sabine Pahl (University of Vienna), Lesley Henderson (Brunel University) and Toby Wardman (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies).

Additionally, our PERITIA colleagues organized two workshops, “Trust in science in social surveys: challenges, measurement and case studies” and “Using experiments to fight science disinformation online: an evidence-based guide”. The first workshop provided an overview on the nuances and complexity of measuring trust in science across countries and different contexts.

The second workshop led by Carlo Martini (PERITIA) offered an overview on strategies to tackle disinformation attempts with the use of attention and monetary incentives interventions on social media. The contribution of John Cook (Monash University) brought additional perspectives on the use of gamification to foster critical thinking. Read more about this on our interview with him at the ALLEA Digital Salon.

 

For further reading on the contents of the conference, you can find the summaries of Day 1 and Day 2 published at the German science communication portal Wissenschaftskommunition. More documentation will be published in the coming months. If you want to receive future updates, subscribe to the ALLEA newsletter.

 

Registration for the Future of Science Communication Conference is open

Together with Wissenschaft im Dialog, we are happy to announce that registration for the Future of Science Communications Conference is now open! The event will take place online on 24 and 25 June 2021. Attendence is free of cost, open to all and registration will be open until 18 June, 2021.

The multidisciplinary conference will bring together outstanding researchers and practitioners, reflecting the state of the art in the field of science communication and discussing the further development of the field. Its primary goal is to provide an impetus for stronger networking and further transfer activities in science communication.

Funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research, the digital conference is free to attend and will offer interesting keynotes, panels, workshops and lightning talks featuring researchers and practitioners from various European and international institutions. The topics to be discussed include:

  • Trust in Science
  • Science and Politics
  • Science Communication in a Digital World
  • Crisis Communications
  • Target Groups of Science Communication

With the full programme now published, we are looking forward to keynotes from Mike Schäfer, Nicole Grobert and Cissi Askwall.

ALLEA is particularly excited to highlight three formats where our projects and partners are especially involved. The workshop Communicating microplastics risk: Balancing sensation and reflection is organized by colleagues at SAPEA and explores a real-life case of how SAPEA communicated the absence of evidence of risk from microplastics to human health after an evidence review report. The workshop Experiments to fight science disinformation online, lead by some of our PERITIA colleagues, will analyse the problem of scientific disinformation and look at strategies to contrast it based on evidence from experiments in social and behavioural sciences.

Lastly, Prof. Dr. Antonio Loprieno, ALLEA President, will be moderating a panel discussion on Science and Politics, featuring Prof. Dr. Janusz Bujnicki (International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw), Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies Potsdam) and Dr. Bella Starling (Central Manchester University).

To view the entire programme with all keynotes, panels and other formats, visit the conference plattform: https://future-of-scicomm.converve.io/

About the conference

An increasing scientification of societal discourses, not only against the background of the corona pandemic, indicates that the communication of scientific knowledge will be even more important in the future. While the exchange of experience within practitioner communities is working better and better at the national and, increasingly, at the European level, the academic discipline of ‘science of science communication’ is only slowly emerging in the European research landscape. Hence, there is a lack of systematic, interdisciplinary overviews of research questions and areas. In addition, the transfer between research and practice in this field is still at a relatively low level. This lack of systematic transfer and networking leads to a lack of practical orientation in research as well as a lack of evidence orientation in the practice of science communication.

This is where the Future of Science Communication conference sets in: Its primary goal is to provide an impetus for stronger networking and further transfer activities in Science Communication. Only effective and evidence-based science communication can help to tackle the challenges in the relationship between science-public-media-politics in the coming years on the European level. We need science communication research that is well connected at the European level, systematically conducts excellent research, and promotes its transfer into practice.

Moving Research and Practice Forward

Which topics in science communication are considered to be well researched? What are the recommended courses for action in science communication practice and science policy? And how can the exchange and transfer between research and practice be better and more sustainably designed? Participants will address these overarching questions in high level panel sessions as well as in in-depth workshops, while discussing the latest findings on questions of trust in science, dealing with fake news, crisis communication, citizen science, and more. Furthermore, our speakers will use case studies on specific controversial scientific topics such as artificial intelligence, genome editing, climate change, or vaccinations to illustrate and discuss learnings from research and practice of science communication.

Over the next weeks, we will be highlighting and showcasing some of our speakers, panellists and workshops on our social media so be sure to follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

For a sneak peek at the programme and to register for the event, head to our website!

 

European Coordination Needed to Fight Science Disinformation, Academies Say

In a new report, ALLEA examines the potential of technical and policy measures to tackle science disinformation and calls for improved European exchange and coordination in this field.

While disinformation strategies are intoxicating public discourses in many fields, science disinformation is particularly dangerous to democratic governance and society at large. As highlighted by the ongoing pandemic, an undermining of trust in science poses a fundamental threat to political and individual decisions based on evidence and scientific knowledge.

Over the past years, extensive research and a variety of strategies have been developed and applied to tackle science disinformation. ALLEA’s paper reviews this work, focusing on the roots and consequences of this multi-dimensional phenomenon, as well as practical solutions for policy, technology and communication.

“The science race against Covid-19 has not only been in the search for a vaccine. Another major risk has mobilised researchers: science disinformation. This report identifies key pathways to counter this ‘infodemic’ in future global crises. Seeing these problems unfolding in our societies, we need an institutionalised and coordinated strategy to galvanise researchers, communicators, and policymakers into action as early as possible”, says ALLEA President Antonio Loprieno.

The authors discuss the most prominent psychological, technical and political strategies to counter science disinformation, including inoculation, debunking, recommender systems, fact-checking, raising awareness, media literacy, as well as innovations in science communication and public engagement.

Following an analysis of the consequences of science disinformation in climate change, vaccine hesitancy and pandemics, the report concludes with a series of recommendations. The authors call for:

  • a stronger focus on communicating how science works and more dialogue in science communication practices,
  • a serious engagement with the public when exercising or communicating research,
  • valuing the virtue of intellectual humility when communicating scientific evidence,
  • the maintenance of good research practices and high ethical standards to ensure integrity and trustworthiness,
  • accountable, honest, transparent, tailored and effective science advice mechanisms.

To implement these proposals, the authors advise to establish a European Centre/Network for Science Communication and a European Code of Conduct for Science Communication.

Even though there seems to be widespread awareness of the problems and harm caused by   disinformation, there is still no coordinated European effort to respond to this with increased and better science communication. While mechanisms of science advice for policy have been introduced on different levels to bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers, no central pan-European mechanism or institution is in place to coordinate existing initiatives and develop coherent guidelines and recommendations on science communication in an inclusive manner”, the authors argue.

The discussion paper will be presented and debated at the upcoming scientific symposium ‘Across Boundaries in Sciences’, held online on 5 May, during the 2021 ALLEA General Assembly. Registration is still open at: https://alleageneralassembly.org/

Download the report here and learn more about ALLEA’s Fact or Fake Project.

 

Open Call for Proposals: Future of Science Communication

ALLEA is proud to announce the Open Call for Proposals for the Future of Science Communication conference, to be held on 24-25 June 2021 in Berlin. The event is organised in cooperation with Wissenschaft im Dialog, the organisation for science communication in Germany. 

Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the two-day conference aims to bring together actors from research and practice of science communication. The goal is to provide a platform for stronger networking and exchange of activities and expertise in the field. We are looking for contributions from the following fields of research and practice: 

  • Trust in science 
  • The Covid-19 pandemic as a challenge for science communication 
  • Science communication in a digitized media world; Fake News/Disinformation
  • Science and politics 
  • Crisis communication with case studies (e.g. on climate change, Covid-19 pandemic) 
  • Target groups of science communication 
  • Citizen Science & Open Science 

We explicitly encourage the submission of contributions by researchers as well as practitioners whose research and work focus on science communication and the relationship between science, researchers and the public. Junior researchers should not be discouraged from sharing their insights. We are looking forward to receiving contributions from individuals with diverse backgrounds. 

The contributions for the conference programme can only be submitted using the application form. Please send the completed application to info@future-of-scicomm.eu by 28 February 2021.

We are looking forward to curating two days of interesting workshops, panels and discourse, for which we rely on your input and suggestions.  For more information and the proposal submission form, visit Wissenschaft im Dialog’s webpage

Download application form