Why do we communicate science?

At the weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a science communication master class as part of the Famelab competition. During it, the question of “why do we communicate science” was raised and the same sort of answers I had heard before were given: science is important to society, people need to be educated, science is entertaining and fun, people need to know what tax payers money goes on, PhD students need to tell people why they’re being paid by the tax payer without ever having contributed a penny in income tax. I had heard these before, but this weekend, I decided that the last two weren’t a good enough reason on their own.

First the PhD student and their non-tax paying ways. The PhD student might not be paying income tax or PRSI, but they do pay plenty of VAT in their day to day lives. While they might enjoy their research and are considered a student, they are still performing a job (even if it’s not defined as such). They provide teaching and demonstrating hours for undergraduate students, and by the very nature of carrying out research are doing a job for their supervisor and the greater research community. PhD students work long hours for low “pay” (it’s a stipend, not a wage, this definition matters to HR and Revenue), so it’s not as if they’re taking this tax-money and spending it on all the luxury while never seeing the inside of a lab. Is there some sort of underlying guilt for getting to study and research and be paid for it?

The point of “the tax payer needs to know what their money is being spent on” is a fair one, but I have some concerns around it being an absolute reason. Yes, I agree that information on government spending, including science, must be available to the citizens of that country. But, scientists seem disproportionately pressured to communicate with the citizens that the money being spent on science is justified. I am unaware of a similar drive for goverment accountants to justify themselves, or tax office workers, or healthcare workers. It may be that I mainly encounter scientists and keep up with science policy in particular, but it seems that it maybe some failing in the public perception of what science is that doesn’t exist with other occupations. While I have no idea how aspects of tax are handled from a government accountant’s point of view, I haven’t heard one come out and explain it for me, the lay-audience, either.

Spending public money on science can be viewed in two ways (and should probably be divided between both sides), either as a commercial venture or as a cultural undertaking. Yes, science can have commercial benefit, it advances technology on a daily basis and this can have a monetary return. Where government money is spent on such commercial science, the tax payer should see a return on their money (whether or not they do directly, much of the argument is that the return is in jobs or a reduction in cost of living). The cultural side of science is equally important. Government spending isn’t soley on commercial ventures, they fund social projects and provide healthcare, but they also fund cultural projects such as museums, libraries, public gardens and no one is about to ask the St. Stephen’s Green garden to explain why it’s there. The cultural impact of science ranges from simply contributing to our understanding of the world to imparting knowledge to the next generations of scientists (whether the knowledge is of immediate practical use or not).

I love communicating science to people, whether lay audience or people who are more knowledgeable than I am. I do it for fun, the education of others and because my work is interesting and worth shouting about. I feel the overemphasis on the taxpayer is misplaced somewhat, the media and goverment have a role in explaining science to the world as much as the researcher in the lab. Placing the burden of justifying science on the researchers alone is wrong. Science and not simply scientists have a huge role in our society.

Oh, and PhD students, don’t feel so guilty and keep on researching.

One thought on “Why do we communicate science?

  1. Couldn’t agree more, not at all sure about this’ taxpayer return’ mantra – does it also apply to professional orchestras, theatres etc?
    There is a much stronger argument for science communication that is rarely employed; most people are curious about the world we inhabit and deserve to know what little science has uncovered. I suspect that , far from being impressed with today’s technology, Boyle or Newton would be horrified that a knowledge of basic science remains the preserve of a lucky few. How that happened is a strange facet of western education and it has serious implications for society, from arguments over wind farms to the threat of climate change – o science communication certainly has an important role to fill
    Regards, Cormac

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