The Reflexive Scientist: enabling more effective science communication and public engagement through deeper reflection and engagement between physical and social scientists

Monday, 15 December 2014
Rhian Anya Salmon1, Rebecca K Priestley1 and Joanna F Goven2, (1)Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand, (2)Kukupa Research Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand
Scientists, policymakers and science communicators generally work from an assumption that science communication, or ‘outreach’, is good and often work from a primarily practice-based knowledge. Meanwhile, the science, technology and society (STS) community, which is strongly grounded in theory and critical analysis, is critical of certain aspects of science communication, particularly in controversial areas of science. Unfortunately, these two groups rarely speak to each other, and when they do they don’t necessarily understand one another. Much of this confusion relates to different assumptions around the goals of science communication, as well as differing understandings of the various roles and responsibilities in both science and society. The result, unfortunately, is a lack of science communication practice and theory informing each other.

This research is a collaboration between a scientist communicator with a positive attitude to outreach, who works in the field of climate change; a political theorist with expertise in public dialogue around biotechnology and has been critical of motivations for engaging the public with science; and a science historian and science communicator who has uncovered surprising and significant changes in public attitudes towards nuclear science and technology in New Zealand. By exploring our understanding of science communication through these diverse disciplinary lenses, and considering three fields of science that are or have been highly controversial for different reasons, we have identified several subtleties in both the politics of communicating different areas of controversial science, and the difficulties of finding a common language across social and physical sciences. We conclude that greater reflexivity about our own roles and assumptions, and increased efforts at enhanced understanding across disciplines, is central to applying the theories in STS to the practice of communication by scientists.