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Periodic Reporting for period 1 - RETHINK (RETHINK)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-03-31

Open and productive interactions between science and society are vital for a healthy democracy. The relationship between science and the rest of society is a crucial aspect of how our society develops and addresses societal challenges such as food security, climate change, artificial intelligence and currently the COVID-19 outbreak. Fruitful interactions between science and society are however not straightforward. We need an approach to science communication that is able to nurture interactions between science and society in an open and reflexive way. However, the science communication landscape itself is undergoing deep and fundamental changes due to two interrelated issues. First, the boundaries between science and society have become blurred. Interactions and interfaces have become more numerous and diverse. Second, digitalization has fundamentally changed how scientists, diverse stakeholders and a variety of publics interact and communicate. These interrelated issues pose challenges for the way citizens make sense of science, scientist and science communicators engage with a variety of publics and the science communication ecosystem builds an open, productive and trustworthy relationship between science and society.

These issues and their challenges require us to RETHINK the theory and practice of science communication. How can we contribute to a productive relationship between science and society, and support the opening up of research and innovation practices whilst simultaneously maintaining and improving the quality of interactions amongst the actors involved? The mission of RETHINK is to improve the quality of interactions between science and society by providing concrete recommendations and training resources for nurturing open and reflexive science-society interfaces.

A central element in our project is constituted by the Rethinkerspaces, local communities that collectively engage in a transformative process of inquiry and learning. In line with the diversity of the newly emerging landscape, we bring together a heterogeneous group of people, including scientists, policy-makers, journalists, public engagement professionals and other practitioners, in Rethinkerspaces, local hubs for inquiry and learning. The Rethinkerspaces have been set up in Serbia, Italy, Portugal, UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland. Throughout the course of the project, the Rethinkerspaces reflect on preliminary research results and actively co-create new frameworks, strategies and actions. By strengthening the relationships between the different actors and their communities, the Rethinkerspaces form a node in wider networks of science communication and contribute to open and reflexive science communication practices. Our research and transformative learning activities go through three consecutive phases: 1) understand the issues of the new science communication landscape; 2) develop new strategies to deal with its complexities; 3) synthesise findings into guidelines and frameworks to support the transition towards more inclusive and co-productive relationships between science and society from the perspective of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).
We started the Understanding phase with a study of the newly emerging science communication landscape, the actors, roles and repertoires of those communicating about science that characterize the digital age of science communication. So far, we have mapped the actors engaging in online science communication in the seven RETHINK countries. We have conducted a survey to investigate working practices of actors involved in science communication in those countries. Moreover, we have investigated the engagement practices of scientists by means of a qualitative interview study. Next, we turned to the reverse end of the science-public relationship as we initiated an interview study to closely examine the sensemaking practices of citizens in the context of the current Covid-19 outbreak. To prepare the development of training resources later in the project, we assessed existing science communication teaching programs. We have also initiated a Delphi study amongst experts to co-create a new framework for the quality of digital science communication. In order to integrate these efforts, we have set up Rethinkerspaces in each of the seven RETHINK countries. Each local community of inquiry and practice consists of at least 15 participants representing diverse angles on science communication and the science-society relationship. Two training workshops have been designed and carried out to prepare the Rethinkerspace hosts to participate in the research and transformative learning process. In the next phase of the project, we will start experimenting with new roles, frameworks and strategies and synthesizing our findings to develop policy guidelines and recommendations. In the meantime, we have developed a communication and dissemination strategy and where suitable, disseminated project outcomes through several channels, such as the project website, social media accounts, and local dissemination activities.
The project is on track to realize its expected impact and is engaging different stakeholders either directly through project activities or through communication and dissemination. The RETHINK story has been shared across a variety of audiences in presentations at conferences and other fora. The Rethinkerspaces have organized their first workshops, gathering actors from different disciplines and backgrounds. For the second half of the project, more research outcomes will be completed and discussed within the Rethinkerspaces, as well as to the wide community of JCOM readers and authors through the RETHINK-JCOM community page, providing a platform for further engagement with stakeholders and citizens.

Overall, RETHINK’s expected impact is to contribute to transformative learning to support more open and reflexive science communication practices in light of the transition towards inclusive and co-productive relationships between science and society. In the first 15 months of the project we contributed to this aim by performing research that has provided a deeper understanding of online science communication practices in 7 European countries, focusing in particular on scientists and professional science communicators, but also looking at new hybrid actors that are strongly influencing the online communication of topics related to climate change, healthy eating and artificial intelligence. We have also performed research activities within each Rethinkerspace, representing a unique opportunity for a variety of actors active in science communication to meet and interact locally, and a mean for us to better understand local practices, challenges and barriers to science communication in each community. Building upon this first set of research funding, and these newly created local communities, the following 21 months of the project will focus on pushing forward the transformative process, as the Rethinkerspaces will start the experimentation phase that will include working with new roles, repertoires and strategies to increase the quality of science communication in the digital age.