The ‘Golden Age’ of science communication

Europe is currently in the 'Golden Age' of science communication according to John Durant, a pioneer in the field and the founder of the first ever science communication Masters course in the UK. In an interview with CORDIS News, Professor Durant explained his view that in recent years there has been a change in attitude on the part of both the general public and scientists. While society has become more concerned about some aspects of science, scientists themselves have become increasingly interested in promoting the understanding of their subject.

'25 years ago there were a few eminent scientists interested in science communication, but the average scientist would try to avoid it and wouldn't see it as beneficial to their career. Elite institutions are also encouraging science communication now. The notion that you could damage your career by popularising has largely disappeared,' said Professor Durant. 'In the UK, the public understanding of science movement was a movement first and foremost amongst scientists.'

Professor Durant is extremely active in the field of science communication, and is one of the UK's leading science communicators. Following two science degrees he spent 12 years in continuing education before becoming Assistant Director and head of science communication at London's Science Museum. He is currently the Director of the museum's Wellcome Wing and Chief Executive of at-Bristol, a very successful UK science centre. Professor Durant also launched the peer review journal 'Public Understanding of Science'.

He was inspired to establish the science communication course at London's Imperial College after identifying a need for this 'small band of enthusiasts' to train the 'leaders of the future' in the field.

It is often suggested that the gap between science and society is bigger now than it has ever been. Although Professor Durant admits that it is difficult to find objective evidence to either support or refute this claim, he has an explanation for this belief. He believes that the 20th century was one of expertise, when science and technology both expanded and diversified. Although more experts emerged, each knew more about less, and everyone became a layperson outside their own area of expertise. Hence the lack of understanding of the work of researchers became more widespread.

Professor Durant does not, however, believe that this is evidence of today's science communicators doing a worse job than their predecessors. 'The pace of change has accelerated and we can't catch up,' he said. 'It's an exponential growth,' continued Professor Durant, remarking that between 1950 and 2000, the majority of all scientists that there had ever been were still alive and working.

In spite of this huge gap between today's scientists and society, Professor Durant believes that a large section the general public is interested in science and knowledge of some areas has increased. Asked whether publicly funded initiatives have played any role in this increased knowledge, Professor Durant told CORDIS News that 'you have to be careful in terms of expectation and interpreting results.'

'We shouldn't expect individual programmes to make a huge difference to the base level of understanding,' said Professor Durant. The main influences are formal education and the mass media, and a comparatively tiny amount is spent on individual initiatives.

'When you do get a change, you have to be careful of taking the credit,' said Professor Durant, explaining his reference to interpreting results. He gave the example of a UK survey carried out in 1987 and again in 1996, which showed that basic understanding of DNA roughly doubled. 'I don't think it was entirely to do with what we'd been doing,' said Professor Durant, alluding to the increased references to DNA in the news and crime series on television.

Some may think that science communicators would be disheartened by claims of such impotence by a renowned expert in the field. Professor Durant is however confident that he and his colleagues are engaged in a very worthwhile mission. Individual programmes aimed at bringing society closer to science can target particular issues and audiences, he explained. 'We can contribute to scientific debate by facilitating dialogue, and will attract people who are already interested.' He is supportive of the European Commission's activities in the field and 'at-Bristol' has responded to the recent call for expressions of interest.

Although the majority of Professor Durant's experiences have been in the UK, he is aware of a general trend towards increased science communication across Europe, and pointed to the 'explosion' in the number of science centres as evidence of this. Until recently, Professor Durant was president of the ECSITE (European collaborative for science, industry and technology exhibitions) network, and now holds the position of 'past president'. The group encourages networking and collaboration and has around 300 member institutions in 30 different European countries. Between them, the institutions attract around 30 million visitors each year in addition to virtual visitors. Professor Durant sees ECSITE as a form of informal education. 'The numbers mean that we can now be compared with the mass media,' he said.

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