Communicating science? An indispensable labour of Sisyphus

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A spectre is haunting the laboratories, conference halls, and the boardrooms of numerous high-tech companies: the feeling that society often spurns science and technological innovation, opposing them with an irrational obstructionism contrary to its own interests, and doing so through rumour and the media, non-governmental organizations, newsgroups, and sometimes even referendums.
Nothing irritates and worries the expert more than the double standards applied to hypothetical and unproven risks, like those of genetically modified crops or cell-phone radio waves, or to risks negligible compared with those of other options like waste incinerators, when there are the much greater concrete risks of car emissions or the air quality of houses.
It is as if society has suddenly balked at the progress (a term by now almost politically incorrect) that has made our lives so much longer, healthier, and more interesting than those of our great-grandparents. Indeed, there are calls for limits to be set on the freedom of research itself.
Yet we need only look to the past to realize that there is very little new under the sun. Innumerable innovations have taken generations before they have been accepted. This happened even to coffee, the potato, the electric light bulb, and the bicycle. The grandmother is always the last to relinquish the technologies of yesterday, while her grandchildren grow up using the technologies of tomorrow.
The problem is that scientific research and technological innovation outstrip the acquisition of knowledge, the evolution of popular culture, and changes in opinions, values and behaviour. And those who have invested in research and technology do not want to wait for thirty years before they reap their rewards. After the tomato arrived in Europe from South America, two centuries passed before it reached the table. Yet the biotech industry expects the transgenic tomato to become available within two years.
Although we may laugh at the grandmother, we too resist change, and it takes time for the new to be incorporated into what we already know or think, or into what we are willing to do. The same applies to scientists. As a celebrated philosopher of science once wrote, for a new theory to gain acceptance, one must often wait for the previous generation of scientists to die.
Ever since the communication of science has been called such, it has served to facilitate (and therefore accelerate) assimilation of the new, a process which would otherwise be excessively slow. Though the comparison may seem irreverent, Galileo’s Dialogue had the same purpose as the articles in Scientific American or the scientific documentaries of the BBC. In other words, communication performs the function of updating social notions of current science and technologies, building bridges between what people know, or are willing to accept, and the new.
However, because science and technology are in constant flux, this communication is a labour of Sisyphus. It is exactly like that of the ancient Greek condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a boulder up to the top of a hill, whence it would roll back down under its own weight, and Sisyphus had to start again. But there are further difficulties.
Social representations of science are already complex and difficult to interpret, and even more so to change, because they have cultural, psychological, ethical, as well as cognitive dimensions. The task grows more burdensome with time because constantly new knowledge and technological innovations arise. This means that the occasions for conflict between science and society proliferate, with the ever-present risk of a spiralling media furore where the voice of science is only one among many, and not necessarily the loudest or the one most listened to. Who has forgotten the media and political circus provoked by the Di Bella case?
It is so difficult to restore reasonableness to these discussions for essentially two reasons. The first is that the public is confronted by something new (and obviously sensitive) which it is unable to understand or to assess because it does not have the means to do so, and there is not enough time and calm to acquire them. Who, for example, is clearly aware that individual cases are irrelevant to evaluation of a therapy, and that rigorous clinical trials are instead necessary? The second reason is that the experts or the scientific institutions that pronounce on the matter are illustrious nonentities for public opinion. It is understandable that the man in the street should want an oncologist to talk on television, and that he should trust him more than a likeable old buffer who swears that he can cure cancer.
The communication of ‘crisis’ serves for very little, in fact, when entrusted to a public relations wizard if it has not been preceded by communication ‘in time of peace’. Communication consisting of regular coverage by the media, information services, exhibitions, training courses in schools, or whatever else, may serve to keep the public reasonably well-informed, to make science known and appreciated, and to build public trust, as do institutions. It is also an excellent way to learn this rather difficult art.
The bargaining power of the American National Institutes of Health, for example, is due to the clear, complete and reliable information services that they provide on the Web. Only by this means have they been able to protest against cuts in their budgets and in the end obtain greater funding. The Hubble space telescope will be kept in operation because astronomy buffs and common citizens are fascinated by its photographs and discoveries, which for the past fifteen years a staff of 40 people have broadcast around the world. The examples could continue. Not coincidentally, communication already accounts for 1% on average of the budgets of the large-scale international research institutes, and for 2% of NASA’s.
The scientific enterprise can only be sustainable and innovative if it is able to communicate with society much more closely and effectively, and with much greater continuity. It must do so at all levels, in both the private and the public sectors, and in a manner similar to that of other actors, like large companies, the Catholic Church, social movements, and the armed forces.
For the world of research this will be a ‘labour’ (in terms of commitment, time, resources, and creativity) as ceaseless as that of Sisyphus. For the new will continue to render advances obsolete, forcing the process to begin anew. But it could not be otherwise.

Giovanna Carrada is the author of Comunicare la Scienza, kit di sopravvivenza per ricercatori, Sironi editore, 2005.

The book can be downloaded at: www.mestierediscrivere.com/testi/comunicarelascienza.htm