Out of their ivory towers

July 3, 2011 03:10

Scientists are increasingly coming to realize that their work needs to be explained to the average citizen.

Prof. Ruth Arnon with a robot

Prof. Ruth Arnon with a robot 311. (photo credit: Sasson Tiram/Israel Academy)

The scientific establishment – exemplified by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, but including university professors and lecturers – has abandoned its ivory towers gone out to talk to the people. No longer are scientists ensconced in their labs and lecture halls; some of them have gone to speak to commuters in moving railway cars, Web surfers, Facebook or Twitter afficionados, and those just having a good time in cafés and pubs.

Scientists have realized that “science communication” is no less important a subject than those in which they have doctorates, and that getting the public to appreciate what they do can lead to more approval of budgets for basic and applied research.

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For the second year in a row, academy president Ruth Arnon – a world-renowned immunologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot – has hosted an all-day conference on science communication at its headquarters next door to Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem. The academy was assisted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology, and of course by academy spokeswoman and public relations director Avital Baer. The conference changed its title from the previous rather limited “Science in Communications” to the more inclusive “Science Communication.”

“Science communication” is a relatively new field. The media are the general public’s main source of information. What they report affects the image of scientific subjects not only among the general public but also among the people who must make decisions on the basis of facts” said Arnon. “Thus we want the discussion carried out on the basis of knowledge about scientific facts and techniques. Explaining science can also inspire the next generation of students and scientists. There has to be dialogue, so we took the initiative.”

She described the “triangle” of the media, the academic world and the public, and that communications among them need improvement. “Until recently, we put most of the responsibility on the media and the public. The time has come for the academic establishment to understand that there is a role in the exposure of scientists to the general public in creating dialogue. I welcome the participants and guests of the conference from Israel and abroad – journalists, editors, scientists, communications researchers, spokesmen of the academic institutions, formal and informal educators, science teaching researchers, and all who care about the place of science in Israeli society.”

DR. AYELET BARAM-TSABARI from the department of technology and sciences in the Technion, said that when new scientific knowledge is created, science communication is a tool to spread the word. “The Internet has added more science communication to what has long appeared in the print media, radio and TV,” she said. “It has expanded the supply and democratized information, even though it cannot all be relied upon. Explanations can be given in a popular way, serving as a bridge to public understanding.” She gave credit to the academy and its belief in the importance of creating a community of science communicators.

The Internet is fast acquiring global dimensions in explaining science, but it is only one of numerous channels, said former HU president Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, who last year took his keen knowledge of and interest in the personal life and scientific work of Albert Einstein to people riding the Israel Railways. It was a big hit and a pioneering effort of the HU to get the public interested in scientific subjects.

Throughout the world, governments and scientific societies are committing new resources to communicating science and technology, said Prof. Bruce Lewenstein of the communications department at Cornell University in New York. “This ranges from support for science centers and university outreach projects to sponsorship of science festivals and training of science journalists,” he explained. “Driven by these activities, a new field of research into science communication has been growing, now supporting at least five peer-reviewed journals in English and one in Chinese.”

He noted that outreach, training and research is motivated by the institutional needs of different groups. For example, “magazine publishers and website producers are trying to drive readers to their products so advertisers will be rewarded by purchases from those readers and viewers. Scientific societies are trying to influence the allocation of resources to science in general, and sometimes to their particular discipline. Government agencies are trying to ensure that they have the expertise needed to carry out their obligations, as well as trying to influence citizens to support increased allocations to their budgets,” said Lewenstein.

WITH THESE institutional needs, it is not surprising that terms like “science literacy,” “public understanding of science” and “public engagement with science” usually mean “public appreciation of the benefits that science provides to society,” he said. “It is very important to understand that innocuous terms [like these] actually represent the interests of particular institutions or sets of people. These are political terms with meanings that go beyond the simple meaning of the words.” So the Cornell professor concluded that “if we are to understand how public engagement in science and technology can serve democratic societies, we need to understand the politics of the institutional and social relationships involved in the process of public engagement.” Science, he said, “is a beautiful thing – the supreme achievement of the human mind. Science is an expression of our humanity.” But too many people are ignorant of what is. He noted that “only about half of Americans know that dinosaurs and people weren’t alive at the same time. You can call it the ‘Fred Flintstone effect,” he jokes.

There is “a small set of people who pay attention to any topic, are attentive and informed.” They constitute between five percent and 8%, he said.Then there are about 15% who are interested but not obsessed. All the rest comprise about 80%, and they are the one who most need help and direction, said Lewenstein.

While there are laymen who naturally have a positive view about monitoring of water purity, other issues such as nanotechnology and biotech are controversial. Many are afraid that such work “could lead to something different than what scientists intended.” Although Gutfreund and others noted a growing interest in science spurred by the Internet, Israel Radio science reporter Ettay Nevo declared that coverage of science in Israel is declining. He studied six daily papers in Hebrew (only) for a month and recorded how many news stories (he did not count feature articles) on science appeared in each. He noted that more articles appeared on Sunday – conveniently for the publishers, because that day comes after Shabbat, when not much news occurs.

Nevo surveyed Yedioth Aharonoth (the second-largest tabloid), Ma’ariv (the much-diminished tabloid), Ha’aretz (the left-wing paper that likes to be regarded as the most authoritative in Hebrew), Mekor Rishon (with a right-wing, largely religious audience), Hamodia (the hassidic daily) and Yated Neeman (the “Lithuanian” daily for haredim).

He did not include Yisrael Hayom, the free tabloid supporting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, or English-language The Jerusalem Post, which publishes a plethora of original articles and news stories on science and medicine. Gutfreund later took the rostrum and objected to his leaving The Post out; Nevo promised to consider this in his next survey.

Nevo reported that Ha’aretz had the most and longest news stories (21 during this period) compared to 13 in Ma’ariv, only seven in Yedioth Aharonoth, six in Yated Nee’man, four in Hamodia and just three in Makor Rishon. He noted that many of the science stories in the haredi papers referred to scientific events as “miracles” – and giving a divine twist to things.

Only six of the 54 news stories he found were published on page one.

The subjects for articles included reports on satellites and missiles, medicine, space, archeology, physics, computers and science policy, in that order. Comparing the latest results to a survey conducted in 1998, Nevo said the number of articles declined by “80%” and rather flimsily concluded that there is a crisis in science reporting. He implied that publishers are less interested in science reporting, so they don’t invest in covering this important subject. But there were no data on how coverage of the Knesset, sports, diplomacy, celebrities, transportation and other subjects have changed since 1998.

HU COMMUNICATIONS expert Prof. Yaron Ezrachi said “if knowledge is power, knowledgeable citizens have more power vs. the government than ignorant citizens. The 18th century was called The Age of Reason, with Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. They all believed government should be transparent to a knowledgeable public. They called for an accountable democracy, so universal education was set up. Israel’s educational system is one of most retarded.”

Ezrahi recalled from history that Galileo wrote a letter to the Duchess Christina to explain his scientific positions regarding the demands of the church; the papacy was undermined by what he stood for. The more science became relevant to public policy, the more it was contested. Scientists became advocates of public opinion.”

The communications expert added that “the problem in Israel is not the availability of knowledge, but public indifference to scientific knowledge. Science must play a role in democracy, but our political culture is passive. There is too little public engagement. The educational system is responsible for making graduates too passive.” He continued that “science can’t give absolute answers. The most acute problem is democracy. The people are like clients, not sovereigns. True democracy must penetrate the educational system. There are unforgivable cuts in education. The public can be encouraged to know that science is important in how it will affect their lives but especially how it will affect their autonomy. Without it, they will be more subjects to government rather than participants.” But with a glint of optimism, he said that recently he has seen “some signs of public engagement” with these issues.

After the theoretical discussion, numerous people involved in science education described their efforts to promote public understanding. Dr. Ronen Mir, director-general of the MadaTech Science Museum at the Technion in Haifa, recalled the controversial 2010 exhibition from abroad that was visited by 300,000. The exhibits of skinless preserved human remains in living poses enchanted many people but infuriated others. “There were almost 500 media reports,” said Mir.

Uri Aviv of the British Council described the success of FameLab – an annual event in its fifth year in which scientists explain a phenomenon or topic to young Israeli audiences in a few minutes.

Representatives of the Bloomfield Science Museum, headed by Maya Halevy along with information director Dea Brokman, told participants about TWIST, a program to get teenage girls interested in science by introducing them to successful women scientists, one every few minutes, like “speed dating.” Numerous other projects were presented in poster sessions.

While some scientists wring their hands and say the “dumbing down” of populations in Israel and abroad makes science communication hopeless, the opposite was proven by many of those present.

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