Sarah Davies is a professor at the University of Vienna, and studies areas such as the role of science communication in society.

“Communicating science contributes to democracy”

Svenska 2021-04-12

Why is science communication important, and what role does it play in society? Sarah Davies, who researches the area, wants to encourage all who spend time communicating science to take a step back and reflect on this question.
“It’s important to look at the whole, and to realise that science communication contributes to creating a robust and democratic society.”

Sarah Davies is Professor of Technology, Material and Digital Culture at the University of Vienna, and conducts research into areas such as the role of science communication in society. She begun her academic career with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, but was never very happy with the practical work in the laboratory.

“I then did a course in science communication, and fell in love. I really like to put research and science into a larger context.”

This also became her research focus after her master’s and doctoral education in science communication.

Take a step back and see the whole

When you are communicating science, there is usually a target group and a purpose, such as arranging an event for secondary school pupils to recruit future students. Sarah Davies wants to encourage all who spend time communicating science to take a step back and reflect on the importance of what they are doing.

“We should think further than just this specific goal, and look at the importance of science and research in society in a larger perspective. Through science communication, we can contribute to creating the society we want to live in, and an event for secondary school pupils also contributes to shaping the future.”

She also emphasises that those who focus on communicating science should also be proud of their work.

“Communicating science contributes to democracy.”

Different formats and forums

Sarah Davies recently conducted an interview study to investigate why researchers and science communication professionals themselves consider that their discipline and practical work is important.

Among the answers was that the general public, which contributes to funding large parts of the research via tax, is entitled to find out where their money is going. Other answers included that well-informed citizens are able to make better decisions, and that research may benefit from interactions with different interest groups.

“What surprised me was that many perceived science communication that is used for marketing, to build up the brand of a university, as something negative.”

According to Sarah Davies, it was not as simple as a certain type of science communication being good or bad.

“Each way of communicating is if anything part of an eco-system, where different formats and forums are needed.”

Recognise diversity

She mentions, as an example, that many now consider that dialogue is the best form of communication.

“There is quite clearly great value in dialogue, for example for getting feedback from different interest groups, and for identifying different problems. But this doesn’t mean that the classic lecture, which can be considered as one-way communication, has no value to society.  You can, quite simply, be interested in a subject and want to obtain more knowledge about it.”

For this, public lectures, video clips on YouTube, or newer forums, such as TikTok, can fill an important function, she thinks.

“It’s about recognising and utilising diversity in research communication.”

Creative formats during the pandemic

Sarah Davies is also involved in QUEST (Quality and Effectiveness in Science and Technology Communication). This is a major European project, aimed at improving the quality and impact of science communication. One of its tasks is to develop indicators for quality and guidelines for practical applications.

“Before the pandemic, there was a feeling that traditional journalism was about to collapse, and that science communicators needed to reflect on their roles.”

Then the need for science communication became very clear during the pandemic; not least to provide information about vaccinations.

The pandemic also forced many who work with science communication to reconsider, as physical events, such as science festivals, moved onto the internet.

“This gave rise to a lot of creativity and experimentation with different formats, and that is exciting,” says Sarah Davies.

Footnote: On 14 April 2021, Sarah Davies participated in Forum för Forskningskommunikation with a lecture on “The value of science communication in society”.

Text: Natalie von der Lehr

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