So what's science communication then?

This is a (rather long) post I wrote as a draft for my proposal (hence it’s a bit drier than my normal tone). Hopefully it’ll be a shortcut for someone else as they try and get their heads around some of the terms in this field.

I have been observing (and finding a little frustrating) how ‘flexible terminology in science communication as a field can be. When I started drafting my PhD proposal though, it became clear that I was doing the same thing by using ‘science communication’ and ‘public engagement’ interchangeably! This was partly lazy, partly expedient, and because I’d found both the literature and in my initial interviews, sometimes they are synonymous. But, they can be used with more specificity, and both are relevant in the context of my research project.

Are PEST and scicomm the same? The short answer

In brief, science communication can be considered an umbrella term, and it can also encompass activities such as exhibition design, data visualisation and other practices which fall within the disciplines of design as a whole. Public engagement is ‘intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public’ (Nisbet & Markowitz, 2015, p.2), and is generally considered to be (or is aiming to be) a two-way dialogical process between science and society. But of course, there’s more to it than that…

What is science communication?

Science communication could be categorised as a discipline, a practice, a professional activity, or all of the above. It has been described as ‘an emerging discipline’ (Trench & Bucchi, 2010) for the best part of a decade, with suggestion that ‘further theoretical development is needed to support science communication’s full emergence as a discipline’ (Trench & Bucchi, 2010, p.1), and a tacit suggestion from the literature that disciplinary recognition is desirable.

But it is a broad church, meaning many things to many people. Ogawa (2013, p.4) suggests that the difficulty in defining science communication comes from the diversity of visions (frequently unexpressed or even not consciously recognised), that emerge from differing values within the science communication community, and individuals and organisations therein. As Davies & Horst point out, ‘Histories of science communication are also culturally located’ (Davies & Horst, 2016, p.220), yet most of the literature on defining science communication is located in a predominantly European context.

Some definitions emphasise science communication as a process. For instance, Bryant (2003, p.360) calls it 'the processes by which the culture and knowledge of science are absorbed into the culture of the wider community.’ Others emphasise the participants. Burns, O’Connor, & Stocklmayer (2003) highlight the 2000 Science and the public: A review of science communication and public attitudes to science in Britain definition, which states:


The term ‘science communication’ encompasses communication between:

  • groups within the scientific community, including those in academia and industry;
  • the scientific community and the media;
  • the scientific community and the public;
  • the scientific community and the Government, or others in positions of power and/or authority;
  • the scientific community and the Government, or others who influence policy;
  • industry and the public;
  • the media (including museums and science centres) and the public; and
  • the Government and the public  

(Office of Science and Technology & The Wellcome Trust, 2000, p.12)

This is similar in scope to Trench & Bucchi (2010) who also highlight multiple groups: ‘[science communication] concerns the communication between communities of scientists, interest groups, policy-makers and various publics. But, on further reflection, we have to consider whether science communication also includes communication between and within various scientific institutions and communities of scientists’ (Trench & Bucchi, 2010, p.1). Though useful in demonstrating the breadth of potential participants (or not useful as it gives such broad scope), these descriptions are limited in that they do not ‘address the how or why’ (Burns, et al., 2003, p.191).

Horst, Davies, & Irwin (2017, p.884) define science communication as:

organised, explicit, and intended actions that aim to communicate scientific knowledge, methodology, processes or practices in settings where non-scientists are a recognized part of the audience

(this is a slight evolution from Davies & Horst (2016, p.4), with ‘explicit and intended’ added to ‘organised’). An alternative definition from Mellor & Webster (2017, p.1) states science communication is:

An umbrella term covering a wide variety of activities, including, professional communication by scientists; interactions between scientists and members of the public; the media representation of science; and the ways people use scientific knowledge in their own lives

Both are broad in terms of who does the communicating, but both also specify the public (or non-scientists) as the audience. How interested or invested the audience is has not been narrowed, and forms and formats are also undefined. For the purposes of my research, Horst, Davies & Irwin’s definition is a working model, but it is useful to recognise, as Mellor & Webster do, that science communication is an ‘umbrella’, with many disciplines having a vested interest, many possible activities encapsulated, and other terms slotting underneath it. 

So is it a discipline then?

Bowater & Yeoman (2013, p.7) suggest that science communication as a discipline ‘faces several challenges and one of the biggest is its multidisciplinary nature; it can encompass communication studies, sociology, education, philosophy, history, political science, ethics and, of course, science itself’. Geography, STS, public relations, and from a practice base, various design disciplines may also crossover with the term.  

Trench & Bucchi (2010, p.1) suggest Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) has commonly been used as a near-synonym for ‘science communication’. Horst, Davies & Irwin (2017, p.882) suggest that PCST and STS are both fields that have an interest in science communication, but not all science communication lives within STS.

Burns, et al. (2003, p.183) also state that ‘although people may use the term ‘science communication’ as a synonym for public awareness of science (PAS), public understanding of science (PUS), scientific culture (SC), or scientific literacy (SL) — in fact many of these terms are often used interchangeably — it should not be confused with these important and closely related terms’. So, how are they related?

The evolution of terminology and models over time (see diagram below) accounts for some of this, as one term overtakes another in popularity (such as Public Understanding of Science (PUS) gaining prominence after the 1985 Bodmer Report (The Royal Society, 1985). However, Burns, et al. (2003, p.190) also point to subtle variations in philosophy, approach or emphasis to some of these terms, which is pertinent when they are used concurrently in a contemporary context:


  • Public awareness of science aims to stimulate awareness of, and positive attitudes (or opinions) towards science.
  • Public understanding of science, as the name suggests, focuses on understanding science: its content, processes, and social factors.
  • Scientific literacy is the ideal situation where people are aware of, interested and involved in, form opinions about, and seek to understand science.
  • Scientific culture is a society-wide environment that appreciates and supports science and scientific literacy. It has important social and aesthetic (affective) aspects.

    (Burns, et al., 2003, p.190)

Bryant (2003, p.361) also emphasises the relationship between terms, suggesting that ‘‘Understanding of science’ and ‘awareness of science’ are two sides of the same coin’, the first about education and a general public appreciation of scientific ideas. The second:

‘Awareness’ is concerned with encouraging the need to know in the individual or the community, with creating an affective change, that favours science, in that individual or community. It is hard to measure, but the best science communicators are able to engender and nurture that change. By so doing, they create a community that is as comfortable with its ‘ownership’ of science as it is comfortable with its ‘ownership’ of art.

(Bryant, 2003, p.361)

So back to the original question: in terms of if it’s a discipline or not, my gut feeling is that it isn’t – it’s a field of study with a whole Venn diagram of disciplines having an interest. No that it necessarily matters other than for the purposes of academic land-grabbing, which interests me not one jot! 

Deficit towards dialogue: the big shift

From ‘deficit to dialogue’ is a shorthand term for science communication’s evolution of ethos and terminology over the last three decades. Since ‘the deficit model’ was coined as a term, this transition has been the ‘most solid thread of theoretical work in this field’ (Trench & Bucchi, 2010, p.2) and has seen ‘the gradual shift in policy discourse from keywords such as ‘popularisation’ and ‘public understanding of science’ to ‘dialogue’, ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’’ (Bucchi & Trench, 2008, p.3).

The early 1980s can be characterised as an era where there was anxiety around the lack of public knowledge of basic scientific facts (the ‘deficit’ of knowledge). Following research by Durant, Evans, & Thomas (1989), which revealed large gaps in what scientists considered basic facts (such gaps as only 34% of the British public and 46% of Americans knowing that the Earth goes around the Sun once a year) science communication was preoccupied with filling the knowledge gap so that the (ignorant) public developed a bedrock of science knowledge. ‘…the implication [being] that this stock of knowledge can be tested, in the same way as you test for literacy and numeracy’ (Bowater & Yeoman, 2013, p.10).

Science communication models and phases over time, adapted from Bowater & Yeoman (2013) and Bucchi & Trench (2014)

Telling the ‘ignorant public’: Public Understanding of Science (PUS)

A defining moment in science communication’s story came with the UK Royal Society’s The Public Understanding of Science report in 1985. Commonly known as the Bodmer Report’ (Royal Society, 1985), it sought to ‘show why it matters that all sections of the public should have some understanding of science and to stimulate action by scientists and others to improve this understanding’ (Royal Society, 1985, p.7), and suggested PUS was essential for the UK to make the most of its scientific potential.

As a result of the Bodmer Report, the tripartite Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) was assembled in the UK by The Royal Society, The Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. COPUS’s aim was to make scientific ad­vances accessible to non-experts (Bowater & Yeoman, 2013, p. 12), and has been credited with a rise in the prominence of science journalism, science centres, festivals and popular science books (Department for Business Innovation & Skills, 2009; Kerridge, 2015, p.72). Still though, PUS assumed a deficiency in the public but sufficiency in science (as holders of the knowledge). PUS adopted ‘a one-way, top-down communication process, in which scientists—with all the required information — filled the knowledge vacuum in the scientifically illiterate general public as they saw fit’ (Miller, 2001, p.17). 

Within the deficit model there lies an inherent assumption about the superiority of science. But for all the hand-wringing over the fact not many people knew antibiotics can’t kill viruses, or the Earth goes around the Sun once a year, or AIDS being caused by a virus (Gross, 1994) (or similar facts that seem elemental to certain groups), one of the deficiencies of the deficit model was its failure to recognise that knowing facts does not translate to being able to usefully apply them: ‘most of us are ignorant of most matters. What is deficient, rather, is to be ignorant where it matters to you, in particular situations.’ (Gross, 1994, p.8).

Miller (2001, p.117) notes that at this time, ‘alongside—but very separate from’ the efforts of COPUS, there was a more reflective perspective on PUS germinating, drawing from other fields like sociology, history, and philosophy. Miller (2001) draws attention particularly to work by Brian Wynne and Alan Irwin, which showed that how science was interpreted by the public was highly contextual, with lay knowledge and social factors playing a key role. Interpretation was not, as had been assumed, an unambiguous and straightforward process, and furthermore, the public were not a homogenous lump – there were ‘consumers, activists, government [and other groups] all of whom had their own knowledge and stance on the issues’ (Bowater & Yeoman, 2013, p.14). At the same time researchers like Bruno Latour were examining the processes of science itself, noting that scientists had their own process of ‘socialising’ findings as they became laid down as ‘reliable knowledge’ through a process of ‘social checks and balances’ (Miller, 2001, p.117). This ‘contextual approach’ can be seen through a second foundational document of science communication, the House of Lords’ 2000 Science in Society policy document (House of Lords, 2000).

Talking to the diverse public: Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST)

The report not only set forth a new umbrella term: Science in Society, it also called strongly for a new era of dialogue and discussion between science and the public, and a rejection of deficit communication. It highlighted that the public had an interest in science, but low trust, knocked by episodes like the BSE epidemic and the ‘rapid advance of areas such as biotechnology and IT’ (House of Lords, 2000). It called for sweeping changes, and a post-PUS paradigm. Under the heading A new mood for dialogue, the report states:

Despite all this activity and commitment, we have been told from several quarters that the expression "public understanding of science" may not be the most appropriate label. … It is argued that the words imply a condescending assumption that any difficulties in the relationship between science and society are due entirely to ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of the public; and that, with enough public-understanding activity, the public can be brought to greater knowledge, whereupon all will be well.

(House of Lords, 2000)

PEST then is characterised by the movement away from a one-way dissemination of facts and instead focuses on a two-way engagement between scientists and the public. Horst, Davies & Irwin (2017, p.886) list science cafes, consensus conferences, museum events and university open days as examples that have been categorised as ‘public engagement’. They suggest that ‘(carefully mediated) opportunities for laypeople to question or interrogate the views and work of scientists’ is the aim.

Another term worth signposting here is ‘public outreach’, which is sometimes used as a synonym for engagement, notably in the UK (Bowater & Yeoman, 2013), but on occasion has a more specific meaning. In the UK, outreach is often used by universities to describe how they engage with schools (Bowater & Yeoman (2013, p.9) and The Royal Society and others use it to refer explicitly to science communication with school children (Illingworth, Redfern, Millington, & Gray, 2015). Illingworth, et al. (2015) considered the literature and undertook a further survey that showed wide-ranging interpretation of the term outreach, but they summarise it as ‘a one-way discourse, in which scientists communicate their research to the general public, with particular focus on schoolchildren and young people’ (as opposed to engagement, which is ‘a two-way dialogue, in which scientists converse with members of the general public in a mutually beneficial manner’). In The Reflexive Scientist, (Salmon, Priestley, & Goven, 2017, p.54) the term is used to describe ‘communication activities by scientists and science-trained communicators’. They too draw attention to the ‘ill-defined’ nature of the term, and suggest that it ‘should be seen to encompass both one-way ‘communication’ and two-way dialogue, or ‘engagement’ activities, between scientists and different publics’ (whereas ‘engagement’ would suggest ‘dialogical interaction’).

The ‘dialogue model’ is not without problems, nor has it wholly superseded top down ‘speaking at the public’ events (and, perhaps, there is room for a blend of approaches based on user (or audience) wants and needs). Davies (2009) noted that even within a purposefully designed ‘dialogue event’ at the Science Museum in London, the format contained both deficit and dialogue communication approaches. Bowater & Yeoman (2013, p. 17) document some additional shortcomings, such as the limited number of people that can participate, the lack of scope for participants to shape the agenda (and with that a power imbalance), and the fact that participants who are self-selecting tend to be unrepresentative of the public as a whole. Though the two way dialogue principle suggests that the public(s) have more agency through this model, this does not necessarily stretch to them helping to set the research agenda in advance of the developments taking place. Could a democratic public engagement approach actually set a research direction for an organisation, or even an individual researcher? At this fuzzy front end, especially with contentious issues for which social licence is not established (or is indeed resisted), how could a public engagement approach maintain and ‘objective’ stance? As Mellor & Webster (2017, p.2) state, ‘Matters of judgement cannot be reduced to questions of science’. Is there an opportunity here for an overtly reflexive approach here?

That’s not to say ‘upstream’ engagement – engaging public(s) in earlier stages of research and development rather than at later stages’ (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2006) – doesn’t take place, but it has generally been ‘in a vacuum – with no explicit link back to the research choices and innovation priorities of scientists or industry, or to the decisions of policy-makers’ (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004). Meaningful engagement could inform policy, direct funding priorities and ‘open up questions, provoke debate, expose differences and interrogate assumptions’ (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004, p.40). But, pointing to Brian Wynne’s research, Wilsdon & Willis (2004) point out that if the questions are framed by the ‘experts’ this is simply the deficit model in new clothes. This suggests a need for a hierarchy or matrix of science communication that not only takes into account who is talking to whom, but also at what stage it is occurring, how contentious or controversial the issue is, and how much impact the public(s) role will have on determining what happens subsequently. 


Thought should be given to issues such what is expected of the public(s), stakeholders or audiences, what impact they can have on the science that gets done, and at what stage dialogue is taking place

There is an assumption that engagement is (or should be) carried out in ‘a dialogue model of communication [with a] public who should be listened to, who had something meaningful to input into scientific policy-making’ ((Lock, 2013, p.17). If an engagement activity is two way (with a mechanism for conversation), but has a purpose of sharing facts or skills, is it truly two way? Is a one way delivery mode (for instance a presentation with no feedback mechanism) that provokes thinking about complex issues in a new way less legitimate because ‘talking at’ people is, in some instances, a ‘deficit model’ communication mode? What ways can a science-communicator or organisation incorporate these considerations into a reflexive, designed approach to science communication?  



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Thoughts > PhD part 09: Engagement by design — A Proposal


Thoughts > PhD Part 07: What is design?