Tuesday, June 22, 2010

55% of public say scientists must communicate more

According to a new Eurobarometer report published this week, nearly 80% of Europeans say they are interested in scientific discoveries and technological developments, compared to 65% interested in sport.

57% think scientists should put more effort into communicating about their work and 66% believe governments should do more to interest young people in scientific issues. Europeans overwhelmingly recognise the benefits and importance of science but many also express fears over risks from new technologies and the power that knowledge gives to scientists.

For example, a massive 58% of respondents at the EU level agreed with the statement that "we can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because they depend more and more on money from industry". This figure falls to 36% when responses from Ireland only are considered. Given the Irish government's decision to reduce the amount of exchequer funding available to scientific research, in favour of more input from industry, it begs the question: will the Irish and European public be happy about this? Perhaps not, given the results of this survey, but they are hardly likely to demand higher taxes to pay for purely government sponsored science either.

53%: "scientists have a power that makes them dangerous"Worrying too is the agreement of 53% of the European respondents (46% of Irish respondents) with the statement that, because of their knowledge, scientists "have a power that makes them dangerous". Not potentially dangerous, mind you, but just dangerous, full stop!

Interestingly, when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that we depend too much on science and not enough on faith, 29% of Irish respondents agreed. This was down significantly from 41% when this survey was last taken in 2005. Is this an indication of the increased secularisation of Irish society?

With regard to the communication of science, 57% of EU respondents (55% of Irish respondents) felt that scientists do not put enough effort into informing the public about new developments in science and technology. When the data is closely analysed, we see that those respondents who feel that they are not informed at all about scientists feel that scientists themselves are not making enough effort to communicate the message about science.

16%: "newspaper journalists best equipped to communicate science"The majority of EU citizens (63% of respondents) felt that scientists working at a university or government laboratories are best qualified to explain scientific and technological developments. Just 32% of respondents felt that scientists working in industry were best placed to explain these developments. 16% of respondents felt that newspaper journalists were best equipped to discuss such developments.

Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: "The success of the Europe 2020 Strategy depends on cutting edge science to keep Europe competitive. In turn, that means ordinary Europeans need to back science and keep the pressure up on government and on industry to invest in it. These results show a very high awareness of the importance of science. But they also show that both politicians – like me – and scientists themselves need to explain better what we are doing and why."

Overall, the survey shows that European citizens are fairly optimistic about science and technology - 75% of respondents agree or tend to agree that thanks to science and technology there will be more opportunities for future generations. However, there is a shift towards scepticism compared to the 2005 survey. Judging by the results of this survey, this scepticism could be reduced by more scientists, in particular those in academia, making an even greater effort to communicate their work to the general public.

As Peter Fiske wrote in Nature earlier this year: "Scientists must communicate about their work — to other scientists, sponsors of their research and the general public...searching for opportunities to give talks and lectures — and seeking audiences that are outside one's immediate sphere of scientific influence at, for example, science museums or local civic organizations".

"scientists must communicate about their work" - Peter Fiske"Many scientists are incredulous at how little the general public knows about science and technology" says Fiske, "but scientists do little to address the gap in understanding. Most think that their successes in the lab are manifestly evident, making education about the value of their work unnecessary. Few ever communicate with their elected officials. With the public footing most of the bill, this misguided belief seems naive and undermines those who campaign for more funding.

"Excellent work is a prerequisite for career progress, but is not sufficient by itself. Broadcasting one's accomplishments and exercising the 'active voice' in all aspects of one's work is the best way to earn notice, gain recognition and make the public at large aware of the value of the scientific enterprise."

The full Eurobarometer report (pdf) can be viewed here.

An edited version of this article appears on the Guardian.co.uk Science Blog.


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