Research in science comunication, public understanding of science, and public communication of science and technology, has focused on the views of the publics. In contrast, the onus has been placed on the scientists to engage with the public and participate in various forms of public communication of science and technology (PCST) activities. Very few studies have addressed the issues from the point of view of scientists.
Nevertheless, there are studies out there, which contribute to the exploring the other side of the debate. One of the largest and most comprehensive sutdies was conducted by MORI on the behalf of the Wellcome Trust and was published in 2000; entitled ‘The Role of Scientists in Public Debate‘. The study aimed to contribute to the underexplored area of ‘how scientists perceive the public understanding of science and technology in general, and their own contribution in particular’ (p.6).
Interviews were conducted with a random sample of 1540 research scientists (657 were wholly or primarily funded by the Research Council) at 41 Higher Education Institutions in Great Britain. Furthermore, 112 scientists were interviewed at 42 Research Council-funded establishments (funded by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council [BBSRC,] Medical Research Council [MRC] and Natural Environment Research Council [NERC]) in Great Britain. The fieldwork for the study took place from 13 December 1999 – 24March 2000.
- Benefits, Barriers
Scientists are very much aware of the benefits envisioned through better public understanding of science. However, they also see barriers such as a lack of public knolwedge, education and/or interest (this view was taken by 3 in 4 scientists).
Despite the fine balance between barriers and benefits, scientists, in their vast majority, consider it their duty to communicate their research as well as its social and ethical impliations to various non-specialist publics. However, many scientists do feel constrained by the daily requirements of the job, thereby leaving limited time to communicate research or even to carry out their own research.
- Participation in Communication Activities
Of the surveyed sample, slightly over fifty percent have participated in one or more of the fifteen provided forms of communication activity within the last year. Scientists’ participation is related to both skill and confidence. Scientistst that feel capable to communicate scientific facts and the implications of their research as well as those that have received training, were more likely to have participated. Moreover, those scientists that teach and conduct research are more likley to have communicated.
- Support and Training
Only one in five scientists felt very well equipped to communiate the scientific facts of their research, while three quarters felt equipped. However, the reported confidence declined when consideration was given to the communication of social and ethical implications of their research. Amonst the scientists, whose work does carry the social and ethical implications, only 62% felt equipped, while one in ten felt very well equipped. The vast majority of scientists surveyed did not received training to liaise with the media, or to communicate with non-specialist publics.
- Room for Improvement
In order to improve the communication, various options were mentioned by the scientists, including encouragement from institutions to participate in science communication activities, provision of media traning and allocation of finances from the funding bodies directed at encouraging scientists to spend time on science communication (mentioned most often).
MORI (2000). The Role of Scientists in Public Debate. London, England: The Wellcome Trust. pp. 50.