Is Science Communications at Odds With Professionalization?

As my last major post on science communication suggested, I’m a bit of a spectator in the debates over how much science communication/public engagment/explaining their work should be done by researchers.  I generally think they should do more (especially if they rely on public funding), but understand that there are plenty of demands on researchers’ time as it is.

One of the reasons that I don’t push this issue a lot (besides a lack of significant study in the issue outside of a high consumption of science communication) is that sides seem relatively entrenched.  Whether the trenches are drawn about a political strategy (which as Matt Nisbet argues, can be taken way too far), or about notions about what a scientist is ‘supposed’ to do, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of active people in the middle.

The Focus section (all free, other content requires a subscription) in the June 2009 issue of ISIS, the journal of the History of Science Society, has prompted me to think about the question asked by the title of this post.  The Focus section deals with placing notions of popular science in historical perspective, and/or apply historical study to popular science.  The section doesn’t address the question I raise, but in its examination of how “popular science” has been treated and has changed over time, how this concept has helped define science as a profession prompted the question in me.

(note – should any History of Science folks – I’m looking at Ether Wave Propaganda in particular – wish to correct or augment my understanding on this topic, I welcome it)

The Section describes, if just in passing, that in the United States and Britain, the idea of “popular science” was part of the exclusionary process that established science as a profession.  In other words, by producing “popular science” for the public allowed scientific elites to help distinguish what they did from what the public was engaged with.  Gentlemen scientists tinkering in their sheds gives way to organized labs, scientific societies, and university appointments.  One of the authors in the section, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, has gone so far in another of her works (Public Understanding of Science 10:99-113, subscription required) to argue that the transformation of popular science to science popularization to science communication helped solidify the professionalization of science and a gap between scientists and the public.  Theodore Porter goes into this in more detail in his HSS Distinguished Lecture (available on his website) found in the same issue of ISIS (but not available for free in ISIS, subscription required).  In particular, he describes how scientists and their interest in communicating science results and scientific thinking to the general population have waxed and waned over time. (He also has some interesting things to say about science and politics, so go read his lecture.)

The Focus section suggesting to me that the establishment of scientific communication as a field separate from the conduct of science helped solidify science as a profession.  I wonder if some of the resistance to merging those practices come from a concern that it would diminish the separate standing of science?  Perhaps, though I doubt any individual researcher would acknowledge it, or be aware of it consciously if this was true.  This might be a good research question for those seeking to further the historicization of popular science.  In the meantime, it might be worth examining other strategies for engaging researchers in popular science.  Current actions seem ineffective.


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