In the 1985 the Royal Society of London published a seminal report calling the scientific community to task to take responsibility for the public’s understanding of science. Since, much has happened across Europe which widely took inspiration from this call out. The report stimulated social research and mobilised resources to strengthen the capacity of science to reach a wider audience with a thriving science culture industry.
Two things had happened. Environmental disasters like Seveso, Bophal, and Chernobyl had reminded many that once successful scientific and technological projects of modernisation could develop massive credibility gaps in the wider public. Furthermore, Finance Ministries increasingly agonised over the allocation of R&D budgets, trying to get more private funding. Once it was clear that the running of science was no longer left to the scientists, the scientific communities were pressed harder to make their case in public.
Many universities set up programmes to educate communicators, either to give writers a science brush up or scientists a career change. The science journalism community reorganised. Scientific institutions lobbied the mass media for more airtime and news space. Science museums diversified and revamped themselves into edutainment centres for family and schools. The science culture industry boomed over the last 25 years riding the waves of triumphalism created by new genetics and biotechnology, computing and the internet, endorsing the apocalyptic visions of climate change, and jumping on the band wagons of neurosciences, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.
Research on the public understanding of science shows that some things change and others stayed the same. Overall, science news increased dramatically since the 1990, and this is a global trend; so has the workload of science journalists. However, there is mounting concern about inflationary ‘dumbing down’ and ‘churnalism’; good science reporting is being threatened by precarious working conditions. The basic concerns of science communicators have shifted from educating a seemingly illiterate public, to shaping more favourable attitudes, to engaging more of a dialogue between science and the public. Some time ago, the deficit was on the side of the public, now all parties recognise the need to learn from each other.
The data on public attitude accumulating since the 1980s shows several things: the science literacy of the adult population has improved; the debates over nuclear power, new genetics and the environment have educated the public. However, in a county like Italy, it is not the youngest generation that is most literate, but the baby boomers and the generation that followed. There is a risk that science culture passes by the youngest. Among all this improvement, men continue to show better on science literacy than women, with signs of convergence among those born since the late 1970s. With proliferating science news, somewhat paradoxically, interest in science news is declining; the older aged go for medical news, while the younger put their attention to new inventions and discoveries. Public expectations are rising. More and more people see that science and technology makes our lives healthier, overcome shortages, create opportunities and make working life more interesting. On these utilitarian achievements the societal authority of science is built, which pays off when providing the facts over climate change. However, the naïve view of many scientists ‘the more you know, the more you love science’ is not much in evidence. What might still be true in India and China, no longer holds in Europe. Literacy brings also negative expectations of powerful and thus dangerous knowledge, awareness of the irrelevance of much science in everyday life, dissatisfaction with the speed of change, and a growing recognition that science and technology might not be the solution to climate change; that lies in individual change of practice, which traditionally is religious quest.
The research into public attitudes to science presses on with old and new topics: deconstructing popular myths remains on the agenda, so does keeping favourable attitudes towards science during political controversies. And much effort goes into engaging dialogue to build a ‘sensus communis’, i.e. widening the moral community, rather than pressing through with technocratic delusions. New research, more aloof from practical imperatives, will investigate the growing ‘science culture industry’ and its unintended consequences. The professionalization of Public Relations in and around Research Labs and Universities increases the risk of fraud, hype and ritual research to seek attention rather than to build the knowledge base for the future. Thus, public understanding of science research fosters a critical public opinion in the knowledge society.
Martin W. Bauer is Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics; currently Head of the LSE Methodology Institute. His research is on the comparisons of public attitudes and the cultural authority of science in different national and social contexts. He is editor of Public Understanding of Science, a key outlet of research in the field (impact factor in 2008: 1.29; ranked 10/45 in Communication Research, 2/32 History & Philosophy of Sciences).