Science, communication and development
How does the experience of countries such as Britain over the past ten years in communicating information about science and technology to the general public relate to the situation and needs of developing countries? This question was at the core of a half-day workshop organized by SciDev.Net in London on 4 December 2001, hosted by LEAD International.
The workshop brought together two groups of individuals that seldom come into direct contact. One was made up of developed and developing country researchers with an active interest in the role of science and technology in development. The other comprised a number of science communication professionals, including journalists, public relations officers and ‘public understanding of science’ experts.
The following is a summary of the discussion that took place. Further workshops are being planned in various developing country locations. For more information about these and related activities, please contact [email protected].
Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the director of LEAD International, welcomed participants to the LEAD offices. She described common interests and possible interactions between SciDev.Net and LEAD, and of the appropriateness of holding SciDev's first workshop at the LEAD offices.
She then gave an overview of LEAD’s work. LEAD identifies promising younger (potential) ‘leaders’ from various sectors of society, and enables them to participate in training programmes with the aim of upgrading their knowledge of sustainable development and to become effective international leaders. They have a sophisticated training package and now have over 1000 fellows (around 30 per cent of whom have a science background).
David Dickson, director of SciDev.Net, agreed that he could see a close link growing between SciDev.Net and LEAD, and that this fitted with the concept of networking that SciDev.Net was keed to develop.
He then outlined the reasons for the meeting:
- The SciDev.Net website was officially launched on the previous day (3 December).
- Its trustees had also gathered for the first time in a very productive and fruitful session.
- The trustees are all deeply engaged in linking science, technology and development on the ground. This was therefore a unique opportunity to put together these practitioners with people in the UK who are looking at science communication.
- The way in which SciDev.Net has been launched is based on the premise that the Internet opens up a new era in the issues of science, technology and society, and that once communication links are transformed these relationships will also be transformed. The Internet allows us to gather and disseminate information much more quickly than ever before, including stories originating from around the world. It also offers the possibility of feedback, discussion, comment and dialogue on these issues, which was not possible with print media.
- The workshop should be forward-looking and provide ideas of how SciDev.Net can move forward. The website is the core of the project, but we will need much more than this ‘passive location’ to be effective. SciDev.Net must aim to be centrally involved in stimulating, creating and moving forward the debate on these issued.
Jane Gregory gave a brief summary of the lessons from Public Understanding of Science activity in the UK over the last 10 years. [See policy brief]
Early ideas were based on a number of misconceptions including a passive, ignorant public, a mass media that was antagonistic to science, and the belief that science communication will help the public to value science. It ignored the underlying problem that scientists don’t understand society.
The 1985 report 'The Public Understanding of Science' concluded that the public and society undervalued and failed to understand science. COPUS was set up and conducted activities such as a factual knowledge survey. This was seen as ‘evidence’ of an ignorant public and led to a campaign for more science in the media and science communication courses. It also resulted in science communication appearing in government policy and events such as SET (science, engineering and technology) weeks.
This way of thinking was summed up as the ‘deficit model’: the idea that the public has empty heads to be filled by scientific knowledge.
Meanwhile, academic research by social scientists challenged these results, finding that:
- Attitudes polarise with more knowledge
- Impacts of communication depend on the context
- Lay people already have great knowledge and expertise specific to their own experience
- Lay expertise doesn’t travel to other contexts
- Ignorance is constructed as actively as knowledge and can also serve social functions e.g. dividing up responsibilities; it can also be a symptom of trust
These studies also found that the following assumptions about the media were misplaced:
- Journalists were out to make trouble for scientists
- There was too little science in the media
- Science reporting was inaccurate
- Increasing science in the media would increase knowledge and result in better attitudes towards science
A recent House of Lords report, Science in Society, is seen by some as setting straight the errors of the past. It places an emphasis on trust rather than knowledge. It says that attitudes are important and that surveys must be treated with caution. It also recommends that there should be openness in political scientific debates. Scientists must change and co-operate with society.
- Most scientists are not involved in the public understanding of science
- There has been little change in the levels of knowledge since science communication initiatives started
- We have wasted time and resources by flinging around irrelevant scientific facts
- Scientists must earn their place in society
Dickson explained that in developing countries often gave a sense déjà vu, and appeared to be hammering away at the deficit model. Is there a short cut around this learning experience, or does everyone have to go through it?
Participants were invited to introduce themselves and give their immediate responses to the initial presentations.
[* indicates SciDev.Net trustee].
Louk de la Rive Box * (Professor of International Co-operation, Maastricht University, The Netherlands)
Lan Xue * (Director of Development Research Institute, Tsinghua University, China)
Hebe Vessuri * (Professor of Social Studies of Science, IVIC, Venezuela)
Joanne Chataway (Senior lecturer in Development Management, The Open University, UK)
Carol Priestley (Director, International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, UK)
Andrew Barnett (Science and technology policy consultant, UK)
Martin Bell (Senior fellow, University of Sussex, UK)
Geoff Oldham * (Science policy consultant, UK)
Lloyd Anderson (Director of Science, British Council, UK)
Jon Turney (Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University College London, UK)
Abel Packer * (Director, BIREME, Brazil)
Mohamed Hassan * (Executive Director, Third World Academy of Sciences, Italy)
Paul Collins (Senior Press Officer, ActionAid, UK)
Natasha Martineau (Manager, Copus, UK)
Lydia Makhubu * (Vice-chancellor, University of Swaziland)
Janet Boston (Television Trust for the Environment, UK)
Fiona Fox (Head of Science Media Centre, Royal Institution, UK)
Fred Binka * (University of Ghana)
Ehsan Masood (LEAD International, UK)
Michael Cherry (Correspondent, Nature, South Africa)
1. Traditional knowledge
Dickson said he was struck by the themes coming through, especially that of traditional knowledge (TK). In the World Conference on Science declaration there was a section on the need to respect TK. But the British Royal Society would not add its name, taking a very hierarchical view of the value of scientific knowledge. In some ways this view is also implicit in SciDev.Net given the participation of Science and Nature, and this is a major challenge. It is essential that SciDev.Net gets into the TK area.
Barnett said that the scientific method can tell you something about whether TK works or not. This might be an aspect that SciDev.Net would want to take on rather than entirely rejecting or accepting TK.
Masood gave the examples of homeopathy and acupuncture as being difficult to analyse with standard techniques, and therefore posing difficulties for the health authorities in regulating them.
Cherry gave the example of a new drug for obesity being developed by Pfizer from a bush cactus. The culprit is the South African CSIR in its role as mediator without offering any compensation for the community.
Box said there is a need to encourage Southern universities and journalists to look at the patenting of TK in order to prevent this kind of exploitation by the North.
Barnett pointed to debate over how conduct these scientific analyses (e.g. testing of drugs through double blind trials) even in the UK.
Fox said she was disturbed by the discussion, and was worried that traditional techniques might be preserved just because we don’t think there’s any chance of using modern science to promote development.
Dickson agreed that we must find ways of taking the best of both.
Boston said that the issue is really about access and respect of different knowledge systems. She gave the example of aid agencies using certain varieties of sorghum during a drought in Africa that continually failed. It was only when they asked the tribes people that they discovered why. She asked how SciDev.Net will access stories about science from outside the formal science communities.
Makhubu agreed that there is a great deal of wisdom in developing countries and that SciDev.Net will need to provide balanced coverage of indigenous perspectives. She belongs to a group working on a new approach to researching medicinal plants. She said you need to approach the right kind of scientist with the right attitude.
2. The scientific process
Chataway felt that the key to the success of SciDev.Net is its focus, and that it shouldn’t be too narrow. We should look at science as an institution and how knowledge gets accepted or rejected in the first place.
Bell said that we’re forgetting about the traditional knowledge process. We shouldn’t lose sight of the process issue otherwise we’ll end up 'knowledge mining'.
Box suggested that articulation of the knowledge process could be covered as a dossier.
Barnett said we also shouldn’t lose sight of the way science and technology relates to production — you have to look at the demand side.
3. Research agendas
Turney asked if the process becomes two-way, why the research agendas of the North shouldn’t be re-thought to reflect the needs of the South and if SciDev.Net could be involved in some way.
Binka said that in reality you only get research in areas where the North can see benefits (e.g. HIV/AIDS, malaria and the interests of the US army). The redirection of resources will follow the pattern of globalisation.
4. Northern experience
Bell suggested we use ‘how not to do it’ examples from the North.
Masood said we should encourage countries not to go down routes that have failed in the North. But this could lead to accusations of conducting colonialism in the 21st century. Policy-makers say 'let us learn for ourselves' even though it may be painful.
5. Target audience
Anderson asked who is the target audience of SciDev.Net, saying it seems very heterogeneous. He described how pattern recognition systems could perform knowledge management. In this way you could create ‘virtual’ interdisciplinary dossiers. It could also be used to broker ‘marriages’ between people with similar interests.
6. Regional networks
Dickson talked about regional networks and activities, and asked how it would be best to create regional networks. Perhaps we should have a decentralised structure to start based on individuals who express an interest.
Cherry suggested that we could target on-the-ground NGO workers and postgraduate students.
Chataway asked if there was any interest from central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. She said that there is an increasing awareness that development is a set of tools, techniques and away of thinking and applies globally.
Dickson said that there is clearly interplay between global, regional and national networks and that SciDev.Net hopes to crystallise those at the regional level.
Box suggested that we should ask for feedback and aim to hold a similar session next year.
Dickson drew the workshop to a close and thanked the participants for attending.
© SciDev.Net 2001