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Biomedicine in museums

Public understanding of biotech and biomedicine — the web-based lecture circuit vs. science museums

With respect to the PLUS (Public Learning and Understanding of Science) aspect of our work, we, as a public outreach-oriented university department and museum, are in constant competition with web-based media — so I guess it’s important for us to get an overview of what is happening out there.

My general feeling is that the whole PLUS field is undergoing quite profound changes right now. For example, the rapid expansion of web-based science lectures has strenghtened the direct channels between specialists and the general public (and channels that host specialists), at the expense of mediation by science journalists and professionals in science didactics.

What’s happening is analogous, I think, to what’s going on in the field of medical and health information. It’s well-known that internet-savvy patients are increasingly shortcutting the primary health system to learn about their conditions through the web instead. Educated and well-informed health consumers prefer to search for specialised knowledge directly on the web instead of passing by their GP (in this case literally the ‘general’ practioner).

Likewise, educated people who want to know more about biotech and biomedicine tend to bypass the traditional media and search for knowledge closer to the research source (although not as close as research articles).  

Many universities, especially in the US, are increasingly putting their biotech and biomedicine lecture material on-line. You can find pod- and videocasts about almost anything in biotech and biomedicine that your heart may desire. I found this Openculture post (from October 2006, but updated through continuous comments) quite useful for an overview of what’s available.

There are also some good commercial ressources, for example the Henry Stewart Talks series of over 500 audiovisual presentations, made by leading biotech and biomedicine scientists who lecture about recent developments in their special fields. These are up-to-date and are probably as good as any specialised biotech and biomedicine science lecture you can attend in your own elite university (and thus heftily priced).

So with respect to PLUS purposes, science museums and science centers are in a severe competition with both commercial and open source web-based teaching tools. Downloadable (and sometimes animated) videos and pod- and videocasts are increasingly doing a much better job than museums on the PLUS front.

I guess this competion will force science museums to rethink their strengths and strategies. If they cannot compete on the PLUS arena, what can they instead provide better than web-based media? As web-based ‘public learning and understanding of biotech and biomedicine’ becomes better and better, the answer to that question becomes more and more urgent.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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