By Dr Gail Cardew

08 December 2014 - 14:44

Painting of James Dewar giving a Friday Evening Discourse in 1904 (c) Royal Institution, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Painting of James Dewar giving a Friday evening discourse in 1904, ©

Royal Institution, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The Royal Institution’s Director of Science and Education, Dr Gail Cardew FBS, traces the UK lineage in science communication and explains where we are with the discipline today.

Official science communication in the UK goes as far back as 1799

There has been an explosion of various science communication activities in the UK over the last ten years. Whatever the level of interest in science, age and location, it sometimes feels like there is something to suit everyone. However, contrary to what many people think, the start of science communication was not ten years ago, 20 years ago or even 50 years ago.

The Royal Institution (Ri) was founded in 1799 for ‘the diffusion of knowledge’ way before the word scientist was even coined. People flocked to the Ri building to hear the latest discoveries and take part in lively debates. The road outside, Albemarle Street, became so congested with traffic on lecture nights that it became the first one-way street in London.

Michael Faraday is well known for his work on electromagnetic induction at the Ri in the mid-1800s. But he was also a gifted speaker who thought very deeply about the ‘art’ of communicating science to a non-specialist audience:

‘The generality of mankind cannot accompany us [i.e., scientists] one short hour unless the path is strewn with flowers.’

He also started the Ri Christmas Lectures for young people. This was long before any science was taught formally in school. These lectures continue to this day and are broadcast to millions of people around the world. They even travelled to Korea in the early 2000s.

Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Laureate for the discovery of X-ray crystallography, was credited with bringing the lectures to TV audiences. He believed passionately that it was the duty of a scientist to communicate with the public and that this requires the scientist to have formal training and practice:

‘The conveying of scientific ideas to people who are not specialists in science is a fascinating art which deserves all respect. It is only to be learnt by the bitter experience of making many mistakes, and by intensive study.’

Science communication more recently

Fast-forward now to the year 2000. The House of Lords Select Committee in the UK published a report on the state of public engagement to point to what some people called ‘a crisis’ in the public’s trust of science. It concluded that there shouldn’t just be a one-way transfer of information from scientists to the public, but a dialogue. In other words, the public had to understand the science, but the scientists must also understand the public.

From that point on, there has been a much more diverse approach to science engagement. From discussions that capture the public’s views and feed them into policy making, to science-busking in supermarkets and on the streets. There has been an attempt to better portray science in the media through the creation of the Science Media Centre. And universities are thinking of new ways to communicate science, e.g., by the use of comedy. Accompanying all this has been an increased emphasis on giving scientists better training at communicating with different audiences.

One question that is exercising the minds of many in the UK at the moment is — how do you know science communication is successful? There has been an increased demand from the organisations that fund science communication that the projects must be fully evaluated. These demands have created a discussion about coming up with ‘best-practice’ guidelines. But there is now worry among some that this has resulted in evaluations that are merely ‘box-ticking’ exercises, and that people are not necessarily reflecting about the success (or failure) of their projects. This is also a challenge for those of us who are concentrating on a digital form of science communication.

Largely, though, the landscape of science communication in the UK is a varied and creative one. More and more organisations are recognising that, in the words of Lawrence Bragg, the ‘wide diffusion of knowledge about science is so important that the art of doing so is well worth learning’.

The above is an abridged version of Dr Cardew’s talk about the UK experience of science communication at this week’s KOFAC International Conference on Science and Creativity 2014 in Korea, where she is accompanied by the British Council.

Take a look at the Royal Institution’s set of science videos designed to appeal to parents of children aged 5–9. If you are interested in becoming a science communicator, join the international FameLab competition, for which KOFAC is our Korean partner.

You might also be interested in: