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Biomedicine in museums

Science communication as a field of governance

By February 9, 2008No Comments

(Here are the introductory paragraphs to a paper titled ‘Science Communication, Blogging, and the Multitude of Technoscience’ that I presented in Stockholm yesterday at the workshop  ‘Science Communication as the Co-Production of Sciences and Their Publics’, organised by Mark Elam, University of Gothenburg, in co-operation with the Nobel Museum. I’ll be back with more fragments from the paper — dealing with blogging and multitude — next week).

I have always been rather skeptical to the idea of ’science communication’. At first this may sound paradoxical because as an historian of science I am (by default as it were) also a ’science communicator’. Historians of science usually write books that can be read by a larger group of readers rather than just articles in scholarly journals. Some of the bigger names in the field, like historian of science Dan Kevles, former medical historian Roy Porter, and historian of technology David Edgerton (see earlier post here), are read widely beyond the circle of narrow specialists.

I guess my skepticism towards science communication is even more paradoxical given the fact that I am director of a medical museum. True, the raison d’etre of museums is that they care for (i.e., curate) the material heritage and that curators inquire into the material dimension of the world. This is something that can perfectly be done without having a public audience in mind. But for a variety of reasons, museums have, throughout the 20th century, increasingly been supposed to display their collections in a narratological fashion that appeals to a larger audience; thus keepers and curators in science, technology and medical museums are, by default, also science popularisers.

The apparent paradox lies in the idiom ”by default”. By thinking in terms of communication ”by default” I wish to emphasise that communication (from communico, partake, share, unite, connect, participate in) ought ideally be a practice of democratic sharing of knowledge and opinions. However, much of what takes place under the labels of ’science communication’, ’science popularisation’, ’public understanding of science’ etc. is lectio (reading for a gathered audience). The text of science – which is supposed, somehow, to reflect the text of nature – is read to the populace through a variety of media, like lectures, journals, newspapers, websites, films, exhibitions, theatre performances, science centres, and so forth. The aims include gathering the populace around the institution of science, imbuing respect of science among the populace, and recruiting new members among its young.

And increasingly science lectio has become a profession in its own right. A growing stratum of lecturers, popularisers, and communication specialists – from science journalists in the early and mid 20th century to science pedagogues and science centre specialists – has invaded the space between the populace and science as a specialist practice; and this professionalisation has further strengthened the instrumental and didactic character of ’science communication’.

In other words, what has made me, and many of my colleagues, skeptical to ’science communication’ is the long tradition for making it an issue in its own right and for seeing it as an instrumental, didactic practice. This instrumentalist tradition goes hand in hand with the corporativisation and governmentalisation of ’science communication’. The long history of ’science communication’ (a book which is unwritten so far) spans from the direct personal interaction between natural philosophers/natural historians and the educated classes in the 17th-19th centuries century to early 21st century corporate and state funded institutions and campaigns organised to inform the citizens.

More than ever, ‘science communication’ is a field of governance – for organisations and universities, funding agencies, corporations, regional political bodies, and national government (even transnational) agencies. Different attempts to change it into a more truly communicative and democratic practice of involvement (’public engagement with science’) have largely failed.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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