On Friday 4th April 2014 I’ll be involved in hosting the second conference in our Evolving Science Communication series. You can find details of the first, held five years ago, in this report.
This conference celebrates 10 years of science communication programmes based at the Science Communication Unit (SCU), University of the West of England, Bristol. We’ve been delighted to work with our graduates to design a conference programme that we hope appeals to them, as well as to others currently working in and/or researching the ‘field’.
I’ve been associated with the postgraduate programmes at UWE for the last eight years, and have been Programme Manager since 2009. Our teaching has always had a strong focus on theory and practice. The programmes were originally designed by Emeritus Professor Frank Burnet (now retired from UWE but who will join us to present at the conference) and Dr Emma Weitkamp (who is still based at the SCU and who has also helped to organise the conference).
It’s the combination of theory and practice that students often say has appealed to them most about our programmes. The opportunity to cover a diverse array of subjects, from science centres, to the arts, new media and old, as well as research and evaluation approaches, means we attract a wide range of students, not all of whom have a science background. Many of our students are passionate about engaging with research in general, and our programmes allow them to do that, focussing on the disciplinary areas that appeal to them.
Returning to the conference, in 2013 we asked our LinkedIn group of graduates to suggest themes that they would like to see examined on the day. As always they came up with lots of interesting ideas, and the three most popular were:
- Online and digital communication
- Arts and creative communication
- New and ‘hard to reach’ audiences
These are also popular topics in our teaching, so it’s perhaps unsurprising to see that they remain relevant to our graduates in their workplaces. In addition, our graduates said they would like a re-cap on current national and international trends, so we will be covering those with two plenary talks. You can see more details of the conference programme here.
These themes represent contemporary concerns: science communication is constantly exploring new venues, collaborations and participants. They also represent the constant need to be aware of what’s happening in the field, to ‘do your research’ on what is out there, what works in theory and how that relates to practice.
Why do theory and practice remain important considerations? From my perspective as a researcher, as well as someone who works closely with students on a day to day basis, I speculate that there are a number of reasons why this remains relevant.
First, you can learn so much from existing theory and research, be it exploring communication models, questioning a theoretical approach or critically examining public attitude data. Time and time again students say that they have considered something from an alternative perspective, or found an approach that relates to their exhibit, interactive demonstration, engagement activity or research. This is often most obvious in our MSc dissertations and projects. Students frequently move towards these with some hesitation but by the end say how much they have taken from applying conceptual and theoretical tools to real world settings. We have just published the second volume of our student project summaries and you can find out more about such projects there.
Second, it takes effort to unite theory and practice. The types of articles I introduce my students to are often challenging, full of jargon, and not necessarily easy reads. Once they have talked through them, appreciated that all academic disciplines have their intricacies and reflected on what they can take away from it for their own practice, I hear such examples referred to again and again over their time with us.
In terms of practice, there is so much happening that is fascinating to consider. Over the last few years opportunities to examine the practices of science communication seem to have multiplied, with impact drivers, the rise of Beacons and Catalysts, and the cultural embedding of engagement approaches. These practices are important; I like Sarah R. Davies’s (2008:414) summary,* which reflects this:
In practice, it is individuals or small groups of technical experts who come into contact with publics, not science as an institution or an establishment. And it is therefore the practices of individuals which will frame and shape the communication process.
However, increased practice also means pressures for short, snappy evaluations and a focus on certain types of impacts (particularly quantitative). Remembering to take the time to carry out good quality, academically underpinned research, or to synthesise some of the evidence that has already been generated, can be difficult when there are more and more intriguing examples of interest.
Finally, I referred to the ‘field’ at the outset of this post. This can be contentious: is science communication a field? Where do its disciplinary boundaries lie? And which resources are most relevant to it as a discipline? JCom provided a commentary on related issues in 2010. From my perspective, working in a Unit which includes chemists, physicists, engineers and those from an environmental or social science perspective, like myself, I often find the narrative around discipline takes me by surprise. I’m very familiar with working with colleagues who have taken differing disciplinary paths to reach the place we now identify (perhaps in different ways) as ‘science communication’. However it has implications in terms of how theory and practice relate. For starters, we don’t all have shared reading, conceptual frameworks or methodologies. That can be exciting, but also challenging. As is well known when working across disciplines, mutual respect is important.
It will be interesting to see if any of these issues feature at the conference, and I am planning a blog post to discuss dominant themes that emerged on the day. You can follow us on Twitter during the conference at #10yrscicomm, as well as the wider work of the Science Communication Unit @SciCommsUWE.
Theory and practice was important at the last Evolving Science Communication Conference and I’m looking forward to hearing how the debate has ‘evolved’ since then.
*Davies, S. R. (2008) Constructing Communication: Talking to Scientists about Talking to the Public. Science Communication, 29 (4), 413–434.