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Science engagement in Australia is a 20th century toy

Australia is stuck in a “deficit model” of science communication. -{GP}-

Science engagement in Australia is a 20th century toy

Australia is stuck in a “deficit model” of science communication. -{GP}-

Science engagement in Australia is trapped in the 20th century. It operates under an outdated model that aims to promote and celebrate science, rather than encouraging the public to participate in, and critically evaluate, scientific endeavours.

According to the first ever national audit of science engagement activities, with a report published last month, most activities are still about one-way communication, from scientists to lay audiences.

Australia is stuck in what theorists call the deficit model, in which the all-knowing scientists impart their knowledge to the empty vessels known as “the public”.

This engagement generally dismisses any lay knowledge as being useful, and sees scientific knowledge as an end in itself. Proponents believe that if only the public knew about and understood the science, they would be willing to accept it.

But international studies show that knowing science does not necessarily lead to support for science. This is demonstrated by a cursory examination of public debates on stem cell or genetic modification research.

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When “mad cow disease” struck Britain in the late 1980s and scientists and politicians famously proclaimed the meat safe to eat, there was a backlash against the deficit model of science communication and a call for more dialogue between scientists and the general public.

It was hoped by scientists that such transparency would bring new support for science.

Since then, theorists have suggested science needs to move even further from a dialogue with the public to a process that directly involves the public in shaping science questions and participating in and reviewing the science that gets done.

More recently, theorists agree there is a place for all modes of science engagement: deficit, dialogue, and participation. In other words:

  • there’s a time when people need to be told the most recent scientific knowledge
  • there’s a time when people need to be consulted about the science that’s being done
  • there’s a time for people to be more actively engaged in directing the scientific process

So what sort of science engagement is happening in Australia? And what should be happening?

According to the national audit of science engagement activities, most activities are still about one-way communication, from scientists to lay audiences: the classic deficit model.

The audit, funded by the Federal Government’s Inspiring Australia program, recorded 411 science engagement activities happening between January 2011 and June 2013.

Most were recorded by science communicators – people employed by research institutes such as CSIRO to help scientists communicate with various groups. As a result, the audit tended to focus on discrete formal activities that were easy to record.

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While every attempt was made to try and encourage participation in the audit from various sectors of the science engagement community, it’s very likely that some of the informal and formal science engagement activities were missed.

The direct engagement happening between researchers and industry, a central element of programs such as the Australian government’s Cooperative Research Centre, is not well represented in the audit.

Despite this, a critical mass of science engagement activities across Australia was entered, and the analysis of the data is disturbing.

We found that few activities aimed to encourage critical thinking about scientific issues or participation in shaping the questions that scientific research seeks to answer.

A major part (almost 60%) of engagement activities could be categorised as deficit model activities: about “learning from watching, listening, viewing lectures, media and/or exhibits”. This one-way engagement compares with only 12% that involve people in “producing recommendations or reports” about the science.

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Most of the audited activities seek to raise awareness or improve knowledge about science. Even innovative science-art engagement activities appear to be about increasing knowledge of science rather than participation in science.

Concept Radical, an art competition that called for artists’ impressions of free radicals, held public workshops alongside the art competition to educate artists on the subject.

While such activities may be laudable and of interest to general audiences, they are not involving people in directly participating in the creation of science and its products.

They are unlikely to help ordinary people to make more informed decisions about the world around them.

When respondents to the audit were asked how they involved people in their activities, about half said that interactive inquiry was a major part of the activity. But only one third said their engagement activities involved consulting with, or sharing views with, their target groups.

This suggests that while some activities attempt to involve people in a dialogue about science, many are a thin veneer of one-way communication where scientists give lectures, seminars or science tours.

Inspiring Australia, a report which set a new direction for science communication when it was issued two years ago, listed four aims:

  • inspire target groups and get them to value scientific endeavour
  • encourage young people to pursue scientific studies and careers
  • critically engage target groups with key scientific issues
  • attract increasing national and international interest in science

Participants in the audit were asked how important the four outcomes of the Inspiring Australia strategy were to their activity. By far, the most important outcome was the first listed above – “inspire target groups and get them to value scientific endeavour” with others following in the order as presented above.

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“Critical thinking” or “behaviour change” are missing from the IA strategy’s desired outcomes from science engagement. And when looking at the audit’s engagement activities, it is of particular concern, given current science issues such as climate change and water management, that few engagement activities sought to change or influence specific behaviours or policies.

Why is Australia’s science engagement stuck in 20th century modes of thinking?

Why is science engagement still mostly about the promotion and celebration of science rather than about getting people to participate in it and critically evaluate it?

As part of the national audit we also conducted focus groups with professional science communicators around Australia. Analysis of this data showed that most people favour participatory, critical approaches to science engagement but feel hindered by a lack of resources and organisational support for such engagement.

Science engagement that involves letting people direct what science happens and how it happens is risky and expensive. It seems science communicators know what makes for a more rounded approach to science engagement, but they don’t yet have the influence within science institutions to garner the support to make it happen.

It is incumbent on scientists, science institutions and science communicators to move into the 21st century and look for new ways to engage people in science so that it truly becomes part of our national culture – rather than an isolated ivory tower.