Studying science communication 
Sarah Davies (University of Vienna)
Maja Horst (DTU Technical University of Denmark)
Send message to Convenors
Engaging publics
C. Humanisticum AB 2.10
Wednesday 17 September, 10:30-12:15, 14:00-15:45, 16:00-17:45, Thursday 18 September, 9:30-11:15 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel focuses on science communication which does not claim to formally influence policy or scientific research, including science in museums, science fairs and festivals, popular science media, or science blogging. We invite critical STS analysis and discussion of these activities.

Long Abstract

The last decades have, in a number of European countries, seen an increase in science communication and public engagement activities. In many places a well-defined 'deficit to dialogue' narrative tells of the move from 'public understanding of science' (PUS) models of communication (dominant in the 1980s and '90s) to more dialogic approaches, based on two-way communication between science and its publics.

STS scholarship has been instrumental in these developments. Theoretical and analytical attention, as well as experiments with practice, have, however, tended to focus on policy-oriented or governmentally-sponsored engagement, and especially on overt efforts to 'democratise' science. This panel focuses on the often overlooked area of (what we might call) 'straight' science communication - that which does not claim to formally influence policy or scientific research, and which may at first glance feature one-way communication. This includes, for instance, science in museums, science fairs and festivals, popular science media, science blogging, sci-art activities, and university and lab open days. We invite critical STS analysis and discussion of these activities. This might include, for example, reflections on the role science communication may play in the democratisation of science, analyses of the constitution of publics and knowledges within particular science communication activities, or accounts of experimental practice. The panel will thus use the methodologies of critical STS to reflect upon the problems, potential and practice of contemporary science communication.

The papers will be presented in the order shown and grouped 3-3-2-3 between sessions

Accepted papers:


Maja Horst (DTU Technical University of Denmark)

Paper long abstract:

When scientists talk about science in public they are not just disseminating knowledge. They are also representing science and its organizations in a very broad sense and enacting particular understandings of what science, scientific organizations and scientists are and should be. Using examples from the field of synthetic biology, this paper reflects upon the ways in which science communication shapes identities, whether those of nations (for instance through the ways in which science is viewed as fundamental for the creation of innovative, knowledge-driven societies), organisations (such as universities or disciplines), or individuals (whether scientists, patients or other 'users', or citizens). Borrowing from theories of organizational communication, the relationship between communication, identity and culture is brought to the fore of our attention. It is demonstrated how science communication is crucial for professional and organizational identity, and how it is part of the making of science through the generation of expectations and resources.


Miira Hill (Technical University Berlin)

Paper long abstract:

A new approach of presenting research and science in popular and artistic ways is currently reinventing science communication. Science Slam is challenging the relation between science and society and scrutinizes boundaries of scientific knowledge. Scientists are asked to present their topic in innovative ways and speak to a generally rear seen nonacademic audience. My project focuses on the communicative construction of science in artistic and popularized genres. As one part of my research deals with the situated performance on stage (Goffmann 1981), which I analyze using video data. The other part is more concerned with the justification (Berger/ Luckmann 1969) of the action, which I will analyze using qualitative interviews.

My paper shows first examples from my field research and will discuss the question of innovation. I will sketch that a long tradition of public science communication has directed the way to a certain style of scientific communication. Following this I outline Science Slam and its specific form of communication. I will focus on the question how different forms of objectifications (Berger/ Luckmann 1969) like the stated motif of novelty, the inclusion of creative actions and reference to social structures support the idea that there is so-called innovation. This paper will show that innovations in science communication are in a tense relationship with continuing institutionalized ways of science communication (reproducing social structure), being framed as something new (call for novelty) and doing something different (creative action).


Per Hetland (Oslo University)

Paper long abstract:

When researchers communicate research findings that have important economic and social and implications, they often try to balance two different roles: the role of a popularizer and the role of a policy adviser. Consequently, two axes of interpretation structure this paper. The first axis makes sense of the rhetoric of popular science writing moving along a continuum from science boosters to science critics. The second axis makes sense of how researchers position themselves in relation to policy and politics. Toward this end, this study has selected one general controversy among researchers whose research topic is the new media technology Internet: the controversy between those who understand technological change as being continuous, as characterized by an ongoing evolution and those who understand technological change as being discontinuous, as characterized by smaller and larger revolutions. This study examines the researchers own text, not mediated by journalists, when the researchers write feature articles that are published in two national newspapers in Norway. The communication of scientific knowledge and the demarcation between popularization and policy are studied through two sub-questions. Across the two different understandings of technological change how do researchers:

a) Discuss Internet issues in terms of how to promote a critical understanding of (science and) technology in public?

b) Engage in decision-making by clarifying and seeking to expand the scope of choice available to decision-makers?


Erik Stengler (University of the West of England, Bristol)
Guillermo Fernández
Sarah Jenkins
Hannah Owen (University of the West of England)

Paper long abstract:

Despite the overwhelmingly strong trend towards dialogical science communication, it is being realised that there is still room and demand by the public for one-way science communication. Even many of those who had seemingly embraced dialogue as the new paradigm have not really adopted this approach in their practice. In fact, certain formats just do not lend themselves to dialogical engagement, science centres and museums being but one example. In many cases, the feeling that dialogue had to be introduced at all costs has led science centres away from their core business and to embark in a number of activities, events and initiatives which have brought them to compete at a disadvantage with powerful entertainment providers, deepening their identity crisis. We analyse the role of science centres in the context of science communication, and discuss how they can solve this identity crisis by looking back at their origins and focussing on what is the basis of their uniqueness, namely the museological language. This does not need to be at odds with, but rather reinforces, the importance of interactivity, by putting it into the broader and richer context of the exhibition-visitor communication of science.


Dorothea Born (University of Vienna)

Paper long abstract:

Popular science magazines are an often-neglected medium in the field of so-called ‚straight' science communication. While being committed to the scientific community, upholding an ethos of scientific accuracy, they aim at mediating science, thus playing an active part in selecting, transforming and recontextualising scientific knowledge. Constituting a hybrid space of science communication, they continuously (re)draw the boundaries between 'science' and a 'broader public'. This public, however, is highly educated, specialised and interested and therefore co-constructed through the specific communication practices of these magazines aimed at their target audiences.

My paper draws on ethnographic observations and interviews at the editorial office of GEO, a highly successful German popular science magazine. I trace the production processes of this magazine, showing which practices, human and non-human actors they involve. Since GEO puts a large emphasis on the visual, a special focus lies on the visual conceptualisation of the magazine, including image selection, graphic design and layout. I show how members working for GEO conceptualize the act of science communication and on what concept of science (and science politics) they base their assumptions. I will also show how the target audiences of GEO are imagined, what kind of scientific and visual literacy is ascribed to them as well as what kind of practices of interaction exist. I will critically assess these practices based on studies within STS on public understanding of science, thus contributing to a better understanding of how popular science magazine participate in the shaping of public debates.


Nina Amelung (University of Minho)

Paper long abstract:

This paper focuses on translation processes of 'enacting democracy' (Saward 2003) in the practices of transnational public engagement devices. A standardized design does not remain the same in diverse local cultural and epistemic contexts. The closer analysis of how democratic principles become enacted by inscribing democratic principles while designing a device and while implementing a design reveals the contextual local conditionality. This approach allows a closer perspective on the organizers, the 'epistemic community' of public participation professionals (Chilvers), who claim to hold the expertise on how to create forums that give voice to publics. This presentation will highlight how designs are translated and shaped in one of the few existing transnational citizen deliberation cases, the World Wide Views on biodiversity (WWVB), and how different sites of implementation, respectively the local constellations of epistemic networks of organizers shape the implementation of transnational deliberation. A comparative micro case study on the implementation of the WWVB design by the US network ECAST including organizations working in the areas of participatory technology assessment and science communication and by the German network under the lead of the Museum of Natural Science, Berlin, will be presented. It will be analyzed - according to organizers' cultural and epistemic contexts - which meanings of 'democracy' and 'citizens' become enacted when organizers make local sense of design features such as participant recruitment or agenda setting for the deliberation process. Empirical data includes expert interviews and participant observation undertaken during the preparation and coordination process among local organizers.


Anne Brüninghaus (University of Hamburg)

Paper long abstract:

Science communication often takes place in formal contexts. This includes policy-oriented or governmentally-sponsored settings where two-way communication is implemented to both present research results to the public and include the public in aligning research and policy.

We propose to also examine two-way communication taking place in informal settings. These are characterized by what only at first glance is one-way communication. The technological possibilities of Web 2.0, Health 3.0 and the challenge of the expert knowledge monopoly enable public actors to participate in scientific communication and weave a two-way communication into the setting. Hence, they do not only absorb information about new technologies and medical science but begin to influence science. In this context, the public assumes a new role: public actors turn into "prosumers" (Hellmann 2010) who do not only consume knowledge but combine the production and consumption of medical and scientific knowledge.

Here, we examine how science communication of consumers can be described by STS analysis, if it can be characterized as "straight communication" or two-way communication, and how prosumers influence science. As an empirical example, we draw upon Health Social Networks, social Web platforms that enable the "active participant, investigating collaborateur, information sharer" (Swan 2009) to build connections with other laypersons, and also scientists, and thus influence scientific and medical contexts. We present preliminary results regarding the form of science communication in these informal settings and the future relevance of non-certified expertise.


Goede Both (University of Cologne)

Paper long abstract:

Although video demos have become a wide-spread medium in communicating science, they remain curiously under-explored in STS (e.g. Elish 2011). With the rise of video sharing platforms, such as YouTube, researchers may easily disseminate their self-produced clips. For example, in order to excite the audience about the potential of robotics, video demos depict robots performing visible actions. Suchman (2011) argues that video demos do more than representing. They are performative. A one-time performance of an artifact is rendered into an enduring performance. These videos imply that what might have only worked once will work anytime. Hence, these videos provide proof of the existence of an advanced technology and of the feasibility of the implicated futures.

During my ongoing field work in self-driving cars research, I was surprised by the pervasiveness of video demos and the researchers' devotion of temporal and financial resources to them. In addition, some of the videos had little to do with what the actors see as part of their research. If the video demos are a solution, what are the researchers trying to tackle? In my contribution to the panel I will explore the role of video demos as a form of 'straight' science communication. My theoretical framework combines concepts from the wider realm of (Post-)ANT with qualitative video analysis (Reichertz & Englert 2011). My argument will be based on preliminary findings from my ethnographic field work.


Hauke Riesch (Brunel University London)

Paper long abstract:

The use of humour in public discourse about science has grown remarkably over the past few years, and when used in science communication activities is being seen as a great way of bringing science to the public through laughter. However, barely any research has been published yet either on the often assumed beneficial learning effects of humour in informal science education, nor the wider social functions and effects of humour about science and how humorous public discourse about science can influence the public understanding of science and the science - society relationship.

I will review some of the literature on the psychology and sociology of humour and comedy and try to apply some of its insights onto what effects humour might have when used in science communication. Although not intended to be anti-humour, this paper attempts at least to start a more critical conversation on the value of humour in the communication of science.


Kasper Ostrowski (Aarhus University)

Paper long abstract:

A central theme within STS is a search for ways of enacting (often mundane) artifacts and materials in surprising ways, rendering them re-present and nudging us to include and/or reconsider them.

Utilizing a novel concept for collecting and presenting empirical materials called 'Empirical prints' I aim to propose 'Verfremdung' - coined by the German playwright Bertol Brecht - as a theoretical 'cushion' which might fruitfully supplement our STS vocabulary. The concept of Verfremdung investigates multiple ways of making the known defamiliarized and 'Empirical prints' is a unique artistic/academic endeavor developed for the 2014 IDC (Interaction Design and Children) conference in Aarhus, Denmark. In collaboration Aarhus University, The Empire (Patron for research-related interventions) and Drucksache (An Aarhus based printer) have developed an investigative concept combining academic rigor with artistic relief prints.

The collection of empirical materials

For the 13th edition of IDC, 42 of the around 200 international participants will be asked to bring a random object found outdoors. During the conference these empirical materials will be annotated, documented, and turned into relief prints.

The session's theme

This way of working with empirical data-collection and presentation has close tie-ins with this session focus on straight science communication.


The concept is still being refined and adjusted, but at EASST I will present a regular paper and (if possible) provide a small display of prints made during the IDC conference.

Word count: 229

Inspirational examples:


Sarah Davies (University of Vienna)

Paper long abstract:

Science communication - for example, science in museums, science fairs and festivals, popular science media, science blogging, sci-art activities, and university and lab open days - is a key way that lay publics encounter technoscience. In contrast to more formalised public engagement such as participatory technology assessment, consensus conferences and other deliberative formats, and upstream engagement with emerging technologies, science communication has received relatively little attention from critical STS scholarship. In this paper I discuss why this might be the case, and argue that studying science communication offers both a rich empirical site for analysis of public negotiations of science and a number of directions that could enrich STS discussion of science in democratic societies. My argument therefore falls into two sections: I start by outlining some of the reasons that those with normative commitments to a democratisation of science might be suspicious of apparently 'deficit model' science communication. I then discuss some ways in which science communication activities can be understood, both theoretically and empirically, as overflowing and exceeding the models of education or affective training that may initially be imposed on them by theorists, practitioners and participants.