Almost a quarter of century has elapsed since the Royal Society launched signals of alert in the Bodmer report on the Public Understanding of Science (1985). The study warned against a potential downturn in the relationship between science and public opinion and supported the necessity to boost “a better comprehension of science as a significant factor in the promotion of a nation’s welfare, ameliorating the quality of public and private decisions and enriching the life of individuals”. The conclusions drawn saw the necessity for scientists “to learn to communicate with the public and to consider such activities as their duty”.
Naturally the commitment from scientific institutions to divulge science has older roots – thinking about the Royal Institution in the United Kingdom in the 1800s or about the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which in the Sixties even considered opening consulting offices in Hollywood and New York to boost the quantity and the quality of scientific content in TV and film productions.
However, it is undeniable that the ‘movement for the public understanding of science, which was born in the wake of the Royal Society’s report, has left a legacy that nowadays remains present at various levels: in the ever increasing effort from research institutions to render their results visible and accessible, with the establishment of press offices and of public relations services; in the diffusion and funding, from national and international institutions, of programmes that involve the public; in the proliferation of courses and of master programmes in scientific journalism; in the explicit statement that the relationship with the society needs to become the “third mission” for researchers and their institutions, together with the production of knowledge and the formation of new scholars.
What conclusions can we draw, over twenty years later? Surely one side of the diagnosis by the Royal Society has turned out to be an easy prophecy: critical issues and public conflicts on scientific and technological matters have increased in these latter years in number and in intensity – from nuclear energy to the mad cow disease, from GMOs to research on embryos’ staminal cells.
The expectation that strong doses of communication could develop positive attitudes in the public opinion has turned out to be more problematic. Several studies, in fact, have demonstrated that persons who are more informed on science themes do not result, for this reason, less critical on issues like biotechnologies. Surely one of the merits of the public understanding lies in the fact that it has fostered studies on the public perception of science. Thanks to systematic and comparable surveys, we now have solid instruments. For instance, we know that the level of European scientific literacy has increased in the latter years, that the Italian level reflects the European average (three Italians out of four identify the DNA as characteristic to living organisms, but four out of ten believe the sun to be a planet). We know that science and scientists enjoy Italians’ trust and credibility, but also that one Italian out of four identifies with a ‘misinformed anti-scientist’. Scepticism on more specific aspects of the organisation of research is more diffuse: quite a consistent number of interviewees shares a critical judgement both on the permeability of scientific research towards economic interests, and on the transparency of the recruitment procedures. Over one out of two (55%) and almost two out of three (64%) share quite strong statements such as ‘nowadays also researchers only think about making money’ and ‘in the world of research only those who stand high in somebody’s favour can advance in their careers’ (Arzenton, Bucchi, “Italians and Science” in Annuario Scienza e Società 2008). We have familiarised with a significant paradox whereby the interest for science and the predisposition amongst students to engage in a scientific course of studies decreases with the increase of the national GDP: the enthusiasm for science amongst youngsters in developing countries has its counterpart in the disenchantment that characterises youngsters in technologically more advanced ones.
It is also for these reasons that the original communicative paradigm, ‘paternalistic’ in essence, has been – at least in words – disavowed by its very proponents. The key-words have developed from ‘diffusion’ to ‘dialogue’, from ‘public understanding’ to ‘public engagement’, from ‘science and society’ to ‘science in society’.
Doubts remain, however, on the fact that we have left a ‘heroic’ phase of the public understanding, in which everything was appropriate, as long as it constitutes communication and, above all, as it is in the name of science. One of the most critical aspects in this sector is in fact the relative absence of evaluative and impact indicators. If the relationship with the public is indeed a third function of research institutions, if it absorbs ever more considerable resources, why shouldn’t it be evaluated as research and formation activities are? And if the original pedagogical mission has failed, what new mission should similar indicators conform to?
An optimistic interpretation asserts that in fact the real impact of the public understanding of science is to be found on the researchers. Communicating with the public, explaining one’s reasons and listening to the citizens’ demands, maybe will not be enough to change the trends, but it will nonetheless help foster a relationship between scientists and public that is based onto transparency and mutual faith.
A more pessimistic view highlights instead the growing adaptation of researchers and research institutions to strategies that are functional to mediatic visibility. A current study published on Science emphasises how scientists in the biomedical sector devote more and more time and give more and more importance for their careers to the relationship with mass communication media. Thus, we cannot disregard the hypothesis that years of strategic communicative efforts have rendered science more sensitive to the media and to social pressures, more than they have rendered the media and the citizens more sensitive to science.
Article published on the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, 6 July 2008. Translation by Sara Pascoli.