The Public Communication of Science and Technology

The premiere conference for science communicators is the biennial PCST Conference, which this year was held in Dunedin, New Zealand, from 3 – 6 April. The initials PCST stand for “Public Communication of Science and Technology.” Ironically, however, the public is typically excluded from the PCST Conference events, which are aimed at researchers and practitioners in the field of science communication.

This time, we decided to do something different and have the address by one of our keynote speakers – Dr Jennifer Wiseman, chief scientist for NASA’s Hubble Telescope – open to the public. We held the event in Dunedin’s glorious Regent Theatre and there were nearly 1,000 people in the audience: 400 conference delegates and over 500 members of the public (Note: the local newspaper under-reported the numbers as it did not have the final figures when the story was filed). The delegates paid around $800 for the privilege of attending the conference; the public were admitted for a “gold coin donation”: either $1 or $2.

As this was the opening of the conference, it featured a traditional Maori welcome from a kaumatua representing our local indigenous people, two short (5-minute) speeches of welcome by the Deputy Mayor of Dunedin and myself, and 20 minutes of performances of a haka (war dance) and songs from a local kapa haka group. In all, these preliminary items took 35 minutes and received a rapturous reception from both the conference delegates (three-quarters of whom were from overseas) and the members of the public. Dr Wiseman spoke for an hour and did a superb job of communicating the wonder of space and the achievements of the Hubble Telescope to the public, while at the same time managing to infuse enough elements about the process of communicating such wonder to the public so as to appeal to that side of the conference delegates too.

Brilliant. A great start to what would prove to be a great conference.

But them some jerk had to take the shine off by first writing to me to say that he and his son were bored by all the cultural stuff at the beginning of the evening and that we (the conference organisers) should be paying more attention to his needs as a member of the public. Furthermore, the same jerk took it upon himself to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, making his complaint public on the off-chance that he had not pissed me off enough already.

Really, I shouldn’t be giving this air, but the answer is simple: we don’t need to invite the public to such events. We don’t need to give them access to such a high profile scientist as Dr Wiseman for less than 20% of the cost of a cup of coffee, while we delegates pay hundreds of dollars. And, if the person concerned is so insensitive that he considers it a waste of his time to be exposed for about half an hour to the cultural roots that make our society so special, I wonder at his priorities that he should find it a good use of his precious time to draft first a letter to me then another to the newspaper.

Of course, given the overwhelmingly positive response from everyone else, we will doubtlessly do this again and invite members of the public into some of our events. But the whole incident does prove one adage about communication: you can’t please all the people all the time!

Photo: Dr Jennifer Wiseman, courtesy of NASA

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