We explore and discuss the diverse motives that drive science communication, pointing out that political motives are the major driving force behind most science communication programmes including so-called public engagement with science with the result that educational and promotional objectives are blurred and science communication activities are rarely evaluated meaningfully. Since this conflation of motives of science communication and the gap between political rhetoric and science communication practice could threaten the credibility of science, we argue for the restoration of a crucial distinction between two types of science communication: educational/dialogic vs promotional/persuasive.
This paper is a big deal – “science communications” has turned into propaganda messaging, which ultimately “could threaten the credibility of science”.
I have seen many young people in recent years earn an undergraduate (and sometimes graduate) degree in a field of science, and then go on to earn a Masters in journalism and pursue a career in “science communications”. Unfortunately, as the linked study notes, science communication positions are increasingly positioned as propaganda messaging intended to motivate others to adopt an agenda.
Many times, says the study, this comes from the competitive environment for academic groups and government agencies seeking to preserve or grow their own budgets. Note the distinction between “science communication” and “science education”.
While it does not come as a surprise that political actors vie for attention and employ promotional techniques to obtain it the same cannot (or rather could not) be expected of scientific organisations whose public esteem rests on intellectual achievement and/or quality of education. However, both political and scientific organisations have referred the task of communication to the profession of public relations experts. Finally, the advent of social media, and its devastating effect on the classical mass media resulting in the migration of science journalists to the expanding PR departments of universities and research labs have added momentum to this development: the old intermediaries are eroding, the new ones (i.e. the internet companies) operate on a different (commercial) logic which is oriented to the capturing of attention, thus favouring promotional communication. So dominant has the quest for attention become that scientific organisations, universities, big science labs, research councils and academies alike, routinely and unabashedly communicate in the PR mode rather than the mode of education, or popularisation. In fact, the scientific community itself mostly fails to differentiate between the understanding of science on the one hand, and building appreciation for research organisations on the other, often touting reputation-enhancing communication efforts as programmes aiming to advance public understanding [Borchelt, 2001]. The quest for attention, supported by publishers and internet companies pushing attention-focused so called ‘altmetrics’, has even begun to erode the norms governing the communication within science, as is evidenced in the growing number of premature publications.