Make science communication an integral part of scientific practice

July 28, 2022

The Young Academy is pleased that Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, plans to set up a national centre for science communication in the Netherlands, and emphasises the importance of a dialogue with society.

In Dutch

Science communication is often defined as “sending” – writing books for the general public, appearing in the media, giving lectures, etc. – with scientists and science communication professionals transferring knowledge to citizens. This form of communication is indispensable. However, we would like to use this letter to call on the minister to define science communication more broadly and inclusively as a dialogue between science and society, in all phases of research. In this way, the centre connects to current insights from literature, international sister organisations, and also to the day-to-day research practice of many young researchers.

Why is a dialogue so essential? Whereas a separation between science and society was long considered necessary to arrive at objective and reliable knowledge development, this view is now outdated. In order to solve contemporary scientific and social issues, many young researchers interact with society during their entire research process: in formulating research questions, writing a proposal, collecting data as well as in achieving ‘impact’ in order to add value to science and society.

This view of science, based on the development of different types of relevant knowledge in networks in various parts of society, means that knowledge development cannot be separated from knowledge use. This is an important insight, because it means that science communication is an integral part of scientific practice. This also provides opportunities to reinforce citizens’ trust in science, by involving them as partners in research. The centre can stimulate the creation of independent spaces around scientific research, virtually or physically, where people with different backgrounds, views and ideas can meet and critically discuss each other's ideas in a safe manner.

Citizens sometimes rebel against scientific research. They do so not necessarily because of a lack of knowledge, but because they do not recognise or simply do not subscribe to the underlying values (e.g. what healthy living is, how to deal sustainably with energy) or research questions of scientific research projects, because other values are important in their daily lives[1]

Communicating scientific results and facts even more lavishly and effectively does not work in situations like this. What matters, especially with regard to those scientific practices that promise to tackle social problems, is engaging with citizens and other social partners. Not to convince them, but to better understand their concerns, wishes and ideas and then to really integrate them (see also Academy). Not everyone will agree, but the scientific research process, in which certain issues are examined and others are not, gains legitimacy as a result.

The Young Academy’s main aim is bringing about such a dialogue between science and society, before, during and/or after scientific research. This is already being experimented with, thanks to funding instruments such as NWA, HealthKIC, Horizon 2020. Examples include the now wildly popular ‘living labs’ or ‘academic workplaces’ in which scientists, together with citizens and stakeholder organisations, conduct research that should contribute to solving complex social issues such as biodiversity restoration, quality of care and climate change.

With the aim of improving the interaction between science and society, we call on the minister to join such initiatives with the centre, as both scientists and civil society partners struggle to shape them. For example, scientists and universities have not yet built up routines and best practices for the necessary knowledge exchange, which means that knowledge development through a wider community is not currently being fully optimised.

Finally, science communication will never get off the ground if it is not regarded as an integral part of scientific practice. Staff members must be given time and space to interact with society, in all phases of research. This can vary from formulating research questions together with civil society partners, engaging in dialogue with critical citizens and non-governmental organisations, to collecting data together with citizens. All these activities usually cost time, money and effort. At present, this investment of time and the skills it requires of scientists are insufficiently recognised and rewarded in the current assessment system of universities. The emphasis of the national Recognition and Rewards programme on achieving impact offers plenty of opportunities for this, even though how this might look in practice is still being investigated. Universities have an important role to play here in adjusting their policies.

We are asking the minister to use the future centre for science communication to pay focus on these broader issues and therefore to improve the interaction between science and society, in all phases of the research process. The Young Academy is will be happy to contribute and to offer specific experiences and advice.


[1] See for example Zeynep Pamuk (2022), Politics and Expertise: How To Use Science In A Democratic Society, Princeton UP; Simis, M.J.; Madden, H., Cacciatore, M.A., Yeo, S.K. (2016). The lure of rationality: Why does the deficit model persist in science communication? Public Understanding of Science, 25 (4), 400-414; Goven, J. (2003) Deploying the Consensus Conference in New Zealand: democracy and de-problematization. Public Understanding of Science, 12, 423-440. Wynne, B. (1992) Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science. Public Understanding of Science. 1 (3), 281-304; Brian Wynne (1989) Sheepfarming after Chernobyl: A Case Study in Communicating Scientific Information, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 31:2, 10-39, DOI: 10.1080/00139157.1989.9928930;




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