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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
Academics from non-scientific fields also scrutinised the outcomes of science communication exercises, and were a source of unexpected criticism. The underlying mistake was to assume that science would be embraced on the scientists’ own terms.

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.

To conclude:

  • 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)

  • He is a member of a government committee in the Netherlands trying to start a public debate on GM food. This started from the same premises as Jane Gregory outlined, and had been proven wrong. Members of the committee were now coming to point where they could see the debate polarising and this probably due to their own campaign. As a result there will be no field trials and no more experiments.

  • SciDev.Net must create a dialogue model between the South and North, especially engaging journalists to inform the debate.

  • Lan Xue * (Director of Development Research Institute, Tsinghua University, China)

  • Tsinghua University recently started a school of public policy and management that involves government officials, NGO managers and people from industry.

  • His own observation is that science communication is increasingly important, especially in developing countries such as China. The government is promoting using science and technology for development but the general public don’t have the necessary understanding, particularly of negative aspects. The public have a blind trust of science and engineering and don’t have the skills to appreciate both positive and negative sides of technological progress.

  • Hebe Vessuri * (Professor of Social Studies of Science, IVIC, Venezuela)

  • She is an anthropologist by background and is now involved in analysing science and technology in Latin American society.

  • She has been a member of a government commission on scientific publications, trying to improve the general quality of domestic scientific publishing and to foster both local thematic niches of comparative advantage, and a higher international visibility of national science.

  • She was also involved with the earliest programme of science studies in Latin America. 25 years ago there was a need for people in science policy decision-making. Now the challenge is to open up the field of scientific to society in order to build social awareness of the strategic value of scientific knowledge, and a broader support base for technological development and industrial competitiveness. Scientists should be persuaded to become involved in the task.

  • Joanne Chataway (Senior lecturer in Development Management, The Open University, UK)

  • The Open University has conducted a number of studies over the last 10 years looking at public reactions to biotechnology.

  • They also have an International Development Centre that promotes research and teaching partnerships. Science and technology are a major component.

  • She is particularly interested in the training possibilities of SciDev.Net.

  • Carol Priestley (Director, International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, UK)

  • INASP aims to enhance international access to scientific information and knowledge. It has over 2000 partners, and hopes to share these with SciDev.Net.

  • Andrew Barnett (Science and technology policy consultant, UK)

  • He is currently advisor to Shell Foundation, looking at links between energy and poverty. He also worked on the last report on science, technology and development.

  • One issue is that in developing countries the number of people with fast Internet links is very small. This factor will be critical to the success of SciDev.Net.

  • Why not emphasise the link with development — what about Development, Technology and Science?

  • Martin Bell (Senior fellow, University of Sussex, UK)

  • A third issue in the Public Understanding of Science versus Scientists Understanding the Public debate is the involvement of policy-makers. They are attempting to create institutional structures to produce and apply science and technology. But they need to understand the process by which science is created, communicated and used.

  • The models that policy-makers work with and shape allocation of resources are tremendously important. But they are often unhelpful, ‘mythological’ models. These seem to block to the effective communication of different ways of doing things.

  • Geoff Oldham * (Science policy consultant, UK)

  • He is interested in how policy-makers (especially in developing countries) access the knowledge that they require to make sensible policy decisions in a timely way. There is a real need for some sort of knowledge broker.

  • The views of the South are rarely taken into account in global policy debates — there are no mechanisms that really work. The extent of public participation has also been criticised.

  • The public understanding of how science and technology affect people’s lives is also something we should be concerned about.

  • Lloyd Anderson (Director of Science, British Council, UK)

  • The British Council has offices in a 110 countries, each with an information centre. and many will soon have knowledge and learning centres. Science, engineering and environment is one of six sectors they deal with.

  • The House of Lords report shows that people’s choices and transparency are the way to achieve democratic science.

  • British Council organised an international workshop on science communication in 1999 for DFID, UNESCO & OST, which recognised that there are various communities of interest including governments. It also ran an overseas talk series including a global on-line debate (involving 600-700 people). There was an international seminar on democratic science in March 2001.

  • They also assist foreign journalists to come to the UK.

  • Jon Turney (Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University College London, UK)

  • It has become apparent relatively recently that public understanding of science, science communication and science policy have become inextricably intertwined in this country. Everything is more complicated than you think: there are publics and sciences. What kind are we talking about?

  • Abel Packer * (Director, BIREME, Brazil)

  • The Internet is a major driving force in science communication e.g. when the US National Library of Medicine went on-line, a third of viewers were members of the public.

  • The decision-making process is very frustrating because it is not able to use scientific information directly.

  • We must try to strengthen local scientific communication (local problems often aren’t addressed by major scientific journals).

  • It has been shown that science covered by the newspapers is much more important in terms of decision-making than that in journals and reports.

  • The answer to critics of the low use of the Internet in the developing world is that without it, you have nothing — this is the only opportunity we have to reach the people.

  • Mohamed Hassan * (Executive Director, Third World Academy of Sciences, Italy)

  • In developing countries, especially poor countries, development aspects of science communication should be highlighted in a very visible way. The public want to know how science has helped to solve practical problems.

  • TWAS has a project collecting successful stories of the application of science and technology (e.g. biodiversity of dry lands, freshwater management, medicinal plants etc) and these can easily be translated to the public.

  • Scientists themselves should known more about local and traditional knowledge.

  • Paul Collins (Senior Press Officer, ActionAid, UK)

  • An example of ActionAid’s work are citizen’s juries for farmers in India and Brazil, which ensure that they have a say in the development of GM crops.

  • For people in poor countries, food can be a matter of life and death. They must be more involved in the issues e.g. GM coffee and the pirating of medicinal plants.

  • Natasha Martineau (Manager, Copus, UK)

  • Copus has recently been quite significantly remodelled (the initials no longer stand for anything!). It is looking at science communication partnerships and trying to provide a strategic focus for science communication activities in the UK. It is also encouraging scientists to communicate science more effectively, taking account of what their audiences want to know. It has taken on board criticisms of the deficit model. Copus aids to provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ for information about science communication.

  • She is particularly interested in how people’s relationship with science differs in different countries. We shouldn’t get hung up on what we call it, but instead how people perceive it and how it affects their lives.

  • Lydia Makhubu * (Vice-chancellor, University of Swaziland)

  • She is particularly concerned about the participation of women.

  • Public understanding of science is a tremendous challenge — a lot of people are not literate and above all, they have an indigenous interpretation of natural phenomena. So what is science communication actually talking about? It really does have to be two-way in order to make in-roads.

  • Janet Boston (Television Trust for the Environment, UK)

  • TVE has partners in 57 developing countries, both co-producers and distributors. They run a series called ‘Hands On’ as part of BBC World’s ‘Earth Report’. They have also teamed up with ITDG. They receive many requests for more empowering information.

  • Although it is a multimedia project, people can choose to write in.

  • They have had an extraordinary response — around 35,000 hits per programme and several thousand letters. The audience is a mix of people, including ‘ordinary’ people who are anxious to see how to implement technology and policy-makers.

  • We should look holistically at science.

  • Fiona Fox (Head of Science Media Centre, Royal Institution, UK)

  • She was previously at CAFOD and therefore interested in the interface between science and development.

  • The level of debate about science in developing world aid agencies was not very impressive. There can be mistrust by the public but this is a very western view. In fact in Africa you see desperation for information. The voice of the South in the debate is very desperately needed.

  • Fred Binka * (University of Ghana)

  • Public health has a major problem because we are always using the deficit model (though he hadn’t thought about it as a model before!).

  • Traditional views of people should form the scientific knowledge base.

  • Need to get people to learn to solve problems in their science degrees.

  • The real challenge is to look at issues of policy — these have the impact on people’s lives. We need civil servants to make good decisions based on evidence.

  • Ehsan Masood (LEAD International, UK)

  • LEAD has 65 journalists in its network, which could work within a partnership with SciDev.Net.

  • You certainly get a sense of déjà vu when going around other countries and talking about implementing science communication initiatives. At a workshop in Karachi about science popularisation for the third world there was a feeling that pseudo science and religious beliefs must be countered with the latest scientific discoveries. Their whole emphasis was on scientists telling people how to live their lives. Among science academies and ministries around the world, activities on public understanding of science take this view.

  • Michael Cherry (Correspondent, Nature, South Africa)

  • South Africa is interesting because despite having some good scientific infrastructure with access to ‘first world’ technology, the public is very ignorant (especially at the top!).

  • If SciDev.Net is to be successful then its expansion should be in the developing and not the first world.

  • Discussion

    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