Science Popularization vs Science Communication

I have been a science popularizer for over three-and-a-half decades; I have been a science communicator for just a tad more than one decade. What’s the difference you might ask?

A science popularizer is often a scientist with a good turn of phrase or an engaging personality who is able to communicate scientific ideas and facts to the non-specialist in ways that are digestible – entertaining even. It may, less often, be a nonscientist who is able to burrow into the world of science and re-constitute it in a way that is fun and insightful: someone like, say, Bill Bryson.

In fact, such science popularization is a part of what is regarded as the “practical” side of science communication; the coalface where the public and science meet and the science popularizer is the interpreter, the stimulant that brings them together. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that is science communication.

Science communication as a discipline sits a million miles away from that. Science communication is concerned with theories and research. Communication theories. Why we communicate? How we communicate? How should we communicate? What is the role of science in society? In politics and policy? In principle and practice? Outcomes? Effectiveness? Ethics?

So many questions – so little time. For, science communication as a discipline has only existed for as long as I have been popularizing science: about 35 years or so. As such, it is still finding its feet, still learning to walk. Yet, intellectually, academically, this is far removed from the quick-witted scientist with a golden tongue or the flashy filmmaker.

The push by the discipline’s leaders has been towards developing a theoretical foundation for science communication. People like Brian Trench, the President of the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network, and Sue Stocklmayer, who was the Director of Australian National University’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science from 1998 to 2015, have long championed an understanding of science communication that is driven by scholarship. Sue’s replacement at ANU, Professor Joan Leach, has continued that push.

To be honest, it took me quite a long time to appreciate the full extent of what the likes of Brian, Sue and Joan had been saying. That science communication cannot be measured in books sold, views or likes. Science communication is deeper than that. It is about informing and entertaining, yes, but it is also about listening, about learning and about understanding. Science communication is, ultimately, about making the world a better place to live – and I really wish that view of science communication were more popular!

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