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Breaking down the barriers between science and society

Digital media continues to change the way information spreads through society. The RETHINK project explored how science communication should best evolve and adapt.

Society

Science communication no longer follows a linear pathway from science to the public. An ever expanding world of digital media has added new complexities into the relationship, coinciding with an exponential growth in content. “We all have to find our way amidst a vast and overwhelming amount of information that is hard, if not impossible to assess independently,” says Frank Kupper, associate professor of Science Communication & Public Engagement at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam). “People make sense of scientific information based on their own experience, emotions, values and world view,” he adds. In this context, the EU-funded RETHINK project surveyed the overall science communication landscape, to see what scientists and communicators could do differently when engaging with the public. “Often, a public conversation about science is already taking place,” explains Kupper, RETHINK project coordinator. “Instead of telling people what they should know, scientists, journalists and communicators should find ways to intensify the dialogue that is already there.”

Creating spaces to RETHINK science communication

RETHINK organised a series of Rethinkerspaces across Europe, in Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In these workshops, scientists, communicators and other stakeholders came together to engage in self-reflective inquiry about science communication. “One thing that we observed during the entire RETHINK project was that many scicomm practitioners experience a disconnect between science and the public,” says Kupper. “This perceived disconnect could be related to experiences online, a more general feeling of a polarising society, the reflection that the same people were reached by science communication activities and specific other groups were not, and so on.” Through discussions, RETHINK participants explored how to connect more with the public, including with audiences that may disagree with them. They highlighted alternative roles for communicators – beyond sharing knowledge – and also assumptions, values and world views, and listening to expressed needs and concerns of others.

Building trust in science communication

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other polemic scientific topics, the role of public trust in science has been thrust into the limelight. RETHINK revealed how social experiments such as co-creation labs and reflective practices can contribute to a more open way of doing science and help to build this trust. “We should do more than explaining science,” adds Kupper. “We should ask questions, challenge assumptions and help imagine a better future, while embracing the messiness of the world’s major challenges and the plurality of perspectives involved.”

Open access to science communication training

RETHINK created a series of open access policy briefs highlighting results from the project, to help train future practitioners of science communication. For example, the RETHINK project revealed most science communicators use mainstream social media to reach a broader audience in new ways, and that scientists indicate that online communication fosters more conversations – things which could be used to improve the quality of interaction between science and society. The briefs also set out a series of six virtues to encourage best practice in reflective science communication. In addition, RETHINK produced a science communication ‘Training Navigator’ to share the latest insights, and a Tool for mapping the online science communication ecosystem for specific fields of science, which allows users to map individuals and organisations that communicate about a specific field of science online. “I believe it is too easy to point at deficiencies or problems on the side of the public,” concludes Kupper. “I find it more stimulating to think about what we as a scientific and science engagement community could do differently.”

Keywords

RETHINK, science, communication, barriers, training, building, trust, society

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