02 July 2006

Scientists don't have time to communicate

It is a sign of the times when the Royal Society can write a press release that begins "A 'research driven' culture in British universities is a key barrier to scientists communicating their work with the public".

It isn't that long ago when uncommunicative scientists would have surprised no one. With a few wonderful exceptions – J B S Haldane still bearsreadingg – communication by researchers really only took off in the 1990s. This was thanks mostly to a report commissioned by the Royal Society (the famous Bodmer report) and the subsequent work of something called the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

COPUS brought the RS together with the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to do all sorts of neat things. Before then they ignored one another, with only the BA doing much really "public".

Public Understanding of Science and Technology, far too condescending a label, gave way to Public Engagement in Science and Technology. (At least gave an acronym with some bite.) Such was the mood the times times that research councils even started to specify communication as a condition in the grants they awarded. Some actually set up programmes to pay people to expose themselves, and their science, in public.

The RS's press release is a trailer for a new report. (Be warned that the PDF file of this report is a dog's dinner – too big and hard to read thanks to some tricksy designer bollocks.) The report says that researchers have put communication on the back burner because of other pressures, such as churning our unreadable papers to justify their grants. (The release doesn't put it like that, but it is the best way to describe it.)

We haven't read the full report yet, so we'll stick with lifting another bit from the press release. It says that "45 per cent of respondents said that they would like to spend more time engaging with the non-specialist public about science. 74 per cent of those surveyed reported that they have taken part in at least one science communication or public engagement activity in the past 12 months."

Apart from the last bit being rather vague, and open to exaggeration by researchers wanting to prove their public credentials, this shows a massive change from those pre-COPUS days. It also shows why it was a good thing to shut down COPUS, or not to strive too hard to prevent its meltdown when that happened. The world has moved on. No need to tell scientists to communicate.

There is, though, if we are to believe the press release, a land mine buried in the report. It seems that the more highly rated the research group, the less likely they are to get into PEST.

Far be it for us to suggest that this raises questions about one of the shibboleths of academia, that you have to be great at research to be able to teach. You'd think that the same would apply to telling the public what you do.

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