The Future of Science Communication, Wolfgang C. Goede


In 1667 London’s Royal Society published a guide to writing scientific papers: directly and precisely, no bombastic or foggy sentences, using instead the language of farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen instead of the jargon of scholars. This influenced Europe and also eventually my own country, Germany. 20 years later the first lecture was held in plain German at the University of Leipzig – but the message still hasn’t reached everyone. Recently I had an appointment with a doctor and, boy, did he confuse me. I didn’t understand a word he was saying. It was as if he had been speaking Japanese! Fortunately, my dentist does a much better job of explaining what he is doing in my mouth. I can relax and even painful treatments become bearable since I know what he is doing.

He sticks to the teaching of Alexander von Humboldt who claimed that “to know and to recognize is a general human right”. The German natural scientist became famous because of an extensive tour he made through South America at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1827 Humboldt presented his findings in Berlin in addition to an absolutely clear and fascinating rundown of almost the entire knowledge of mankind at that time. His audience included the king as well as masons and maids. If there were a gallery of science popularizers Humboldt would deserve a prominent position.

Then came the Industrial Revolution.  It catapulted people into a new world with a flood of technological innovations, ever increasing speed and profound cultural changes. Trains, automobiles, airplanes ­ dreams of mobility came true and lured people into becoming frenetic proponents of progress. For more than a century nobody dared to touch science’s truth monopoly, that is, until 1945 when two atomic detonations here In Japan shocked the world. In the aftermath people began realizing that indefinite growth was not possible. Growing poverty, misery and hunger had split the world into a developed and developing world. The realization that natural resources and energy supplies would only last for another 100 years became inescapable and that the environment and the climate were deteriorating. Even nutrition is up for grabs. Mad cow disease BSE worries Europeans and nobody knows how it will affect human life and other regions and this part of the world. The British in particular are upset about their politicians blatantly lying to them when they were claiming just a couple of years ago: Don’t worry, no danger for humans ­ and had their children publicly eat beefburgers on television!

What were the reactions? On the political level the Green Party, activist movements like Robin Wood and Green Peace and most recently the globalization adversaries emerged; the experts at the universities had to abandon their ivory towers and present their research at the market place in order to rebuild public confidence. In Germany this is called PUSH, Public Understanding of Science and Humanities and has led to science festivals in major cities. Last August in Berlin research institutes and museums opened until 2 in the morning on a Saturday night. Last but not least as a result of this distrust the news media discovered science, finding a new huge platform in newspapers, magazines, radio, television and in the Internet.


The pillars of modern society are government, political parties, the business community, scientific institutions, labor unions and churches. The main pillar though consists of the citizens who have the vote and decide who gets elected, who shall represent his or her views and concerns. Citizens pay taxes and the salary of elected politicians as well as civil servants. Moreover, it is they who largely foot the bill for the scientific community. Furthermore, citizens are also clients, consumers, users and stockholders. They buy the products which scientists have researched with tax money and which are put on the market by companies which citizens partially own. Whereas in the 17th century king Louis 14th proclaimed, “I am the state,” citizens in the 21st century legitimately and rightfully insist: “We are the state.”

In other words, throughout history societies were constructed like Egyptian pyramids, steep and with a few leaders on top who made decisions for the people below. The advent of democratic constitutions has leveled the pyramids and hierarchies and has introduced participation by the lay people. Nevertheless, there remains a lot of discontent and more and more voters and consumers, at least in Europe, feel excluded from power.

You may notice that this is a profound change compared to the pyramid. Paternalistic communication from the top down is enriched and supplemented by bottom-up flows which provide urgently needed feedback to decision makers. Of course, this creates much more conflict – but isn’t this what democracy is all about and isn’t that its strength? “You have to allow controversy before confidence can develop”, says Sir Robert May, scientific advisor of the British Prime Minister. Struggles over contrary positions integrate society, pull in the dissidents as well as the indifferent people, break their isolation, give them a voice and build consensus among conflicting groups.

To summarize: Civil society forms the fabric, the web of society and produces its social capital which is equal to or perhaps more important than the financial and natural resources of a nation.

The Future
Contrary to existing stereotypes, the public has something important to contribute. This is both political, in terms of enhancing democratic legitimacy, and also intellectual, in terms of providing important intellectual input to the scientific process. Wynne[2] asks: Whose knowledge is counted as valid ­ abstract genetic science accompanied by a strong prescriptive moral which was not respectful of the life-worlds it proposed to overthrow? ­ or the life-world practical expertises? Knowledge is clearly more than one-dimensional.

If we agree that this world needs an updated communication model to meet the challenges and risks of the new millennium, then what can be done ­ what can you possibly do in your daily life and work to put it into practice?

If you are a science journalist, start with local networking, reach out to your colleagues in various media and shape your agenda. No matter whether you are connected to the print or electronic media, science sells well these days and there is a great demand for innovative approaches and formats to reach audiences. If you want to get involved on an international level you will find plenty of contacts here at the conference  ­ for example the Presidents of the International Science Writers Association (ISWA) and the European Union of Science Journalists’ Association (EUSJA), moreover representatives from South American and Asian organizations.[3]

If you are a scientist or researcher you might like to get involved in Public Understanding of Science (PUS), also dubbed Public Understanding of Science & Humanities (PUSH) or Public Understanding of Science & Technology (PUST). That can be a lot of fun for both, actor and audience. An English physics professor has specialized in what he calls “Science in the Pub”. He presents quiz shows and asks the pub visitors questions about how beers and liquors are produced and the chemistry behind it. Meet the people where they are and deliver your science through various events dealing with food, gardening, cooking, sport…! Professor John Durant is chief executive of At-Bristol and president of the European collaborative for science, industry and technology exhibitions (ECSITE).  He is a worldwide-acknowledged expert on PUSH, can give you ideas.

If you are a plain citizen or a lay expert, get organized to feed your lay knowledge into the scientific pipeline. Join the civil society groups and set up your strategy. UNESCO has registered almost 30 000 organizations, unofficially more than a million are in operation. The Danish Board of Technology has invented so-called consensus conferences and citizens’ juries[4]. A randomly selected group of people designed to represent the public is impaneled to study a local and regional public policy issue. They invite experts, ask questions as to the risks and benefits of a proposed project or technique and cross-examine them. After the lay panel has reached a consensus, a press conference is held which has a significant impact on the opinion of the public and the policy makers.

 Let me finish with six theses:


q       Only when we constantly reinvent ourselves civilly and democratically can we meet the scientific and socio-economic challenges of this century.

q        Knowledge in our era belongs to everyone. We need “research of the people, by the people, for the people” ­ to paraphrase US president Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

q       “Expertocracy” is out ­ “radical knowledge creation thrives in a society where authority can be challenged” (Charles Leadbeater, British science author).

q       Civil society calls for civic science (scientists who go public), civic journalism (journalists who reach the people), civic engagement (active citizens who care and do more than merely go to the polls on election day).

q       We shall have reached this state when “access to science is as natural as access to art, literature, music” (John Durant) and when “science news is as feverishly discussed as the latest soccer and football scores” (Edelgard Bulmahn, Germany’s Federal Minister of Science and Technology).

q       According to the US computer expert Bill Joy, the GNR technologies (gene, nano, robotics) can cure our earth ­ but they also can turn out to be more destructive than all weapons on earth!


This article is an abridged version of a lecture given to the International Conference of Science & Technology Journalists – Tokyo 2001.