Science as a public matter: science policies and the media - Karel Čada, Alice Červinková, Marcela Linková, Dana Řeháčková, Tereza Stöckelová
Based on expert interviews conducted in autumn 2004 we discuss in this publication processes which are currently shaping science and research – the emphasis on economic aspects of knowledge production and commercialization of research results; efforts to preserve the traditional perceptions of science as a sphere of its own controlled only by research communities; the functioning of journalists as mere translators of science to society but not as a critical voice translating or presenting or confronting science with various public interest. What we aim to do is to provide a critical assessment of these processes and to embed them in wider European and global trends. In so doing we are not promoting catching up with Europe or the world. On the contrary, we consider this discourse to be dangerous because it places us face to face with ready-made, predetermined goals which cannot be publicly and openly politically debated, to which no alternatives can be posited. What we want to stress is that these changes in R&D are happening concurrently in the Czech Republic and in Europe, are subject to disputes and negotiations and do not have a predetermined definite result “here” or “there”. If there is one area in which we support the idea of catching up, it is only the development of a public debate, academic critique and civil engagement in research and development.
accountability, civil society, the media, research, science, science policies
The chapter Science as a collective experiment addresses current developments in science and research in science policies and in the public arena in the Czech Republic. In the first part of the chapter we outline and discuss basic directions in the development of science and research in western societies and in the Czech Republic as described in science and technology studies academic literature. We do not approach this development as basically given and without contradictions; on the contrary, we strive to argue that the concrete forms of this development and its meanings are often subject to negotiations and disputes – among researchers, science policy makers, civil activists and organizations, journalists and last but not least social scientists studying science, research and technologies.
We discuss three phenomena in the chapter. Firstly, the accountability of science, secondly cooperation and links to industrial and/or non-profit sector and finally the term knowledge-based
society. In all cases we point to the fact that the understanding of these phenomena which is dominant and most supported in science policies in EU Member States and in the EU science policy is questioned in many arenas – especially by initiatives of non-governmental organisations dealing with the creation and use of knowledge. The narrow focus on economic accountability is expanded to include a claim to a wider social accountability of research and defence of openly negotiated (and not implicitly presumed economically focused) “public interest”. The unilateral orientation of research institutions on cooperation with the industrial sector and commercialisation of science are critiqued, and the need to link and cooperate with the non-profit sector and to institutionally support such links and cooperations is recommended. Finally, the term knowledge-based society can be understood not only in terms of the growing number of people who are prepared to competently use the dominant knowledge but also of those who subject it to critical review and come up with alternatives to it.
In the second part of the chapter we build on interviews carried out with representatives of Czech science among office holders in Czech research institutions (Academy of Sciences, universities), some members of the Council for Research and Development and science policy makers and state officials responsible for research and development. In the interviews with science representatives we reconstructed two basic framings of discourses on science, research and science policies. We call the first one science as discovery. This framing refers to the “traditional” understanding of science equating it with method and rationality, with emphasis placed on disciplinarity, epistemic autonomy of science and its political neutrality. The relationship between science and society in this framing is a relationship of two distinct and separate spheres subject to completely different rules. Society is epistemically passive but bears political responsibility for ab/uses of the results of scientific research. We call the second framing science as enterprising. It captures the highly competitive nature of current research reflected in epistemic practices of knowledge creation and circulation; it stresses the economic accountability of science carried out through patents and publications in impact journals. In this instance, the relationship between science and society is much narrower but society is generally reduced to industrial actors, interests and rules of the game. In discourses of science representatives these two framings are not mutually exclusive but rather they strategically complement each other. The first refers to the role of knowledge as expertise which in the normative framework of democracy represents an opposite to political negotiation and an independent source of political negotiation; the second framing refers to the role of knowledge as the engine of growth and thus a source of legitimacy of capitalist economies.
In the interviews with policy makers and state officials science is framed strictly as enterprising. Topics that are mentioned most frequently are the economic aspects and competitiveness of the Czech economy, emphasis on commercialisation of research results and research accountability. Research is perceived as the main tool in international economic competition and source of competitiveness of Czech society. This is related to the explicit support for innovative and small and medium-sized enterprises and stress on economic aspects of research results. It appears that the traditional measures of assessment (e.g., the impact factor, the citation index) can be today, in some contexts, perceived as an obstacle to taking advantage of the economic results new knowledge can bring (e.g., patents and IPR). The stress on the economic aspects of research are then reflected in the support for natural and technical sciences and engineering which are seen as better suited to achieve immediate economic impact. Research accountability is perceived primarily as a way of justifying research expenditures in the form of unified and measurable results. Society does not enter the processes of accountability directly but is mentioned in connection with the necessity to communicate research questions and results to society with the goal of preventing the formation of potential negative image of science in society. The framing of science as discovery is not explicitly voiced by politicians and state officials responsible for R&D; this does not mean, however, that they do not use this framing. Expert, scientific knowledge is mobilised to push political goals, to end political debates on public policies.
In conclusion we open the question whether the framing of science as discovery and as enterprising which we reconstructed in the interviews conducted are the only two alternatives to understanding science in contemporary societies. Referring to the introductory part of the text and experience gained in other European countries we endorse yet another – one that opens science as discovery (in the modern doctrine epistemically closed in relation to society) not only to economic influences and interests but also to a much wider social discussion and practices that make it possible for a wide range of social actors to contribute to the shaping and active use of knowledge.
In the second chapter we analyse communication of science in various media. We build our analysis on interviews with sixteen journalists. We selected public media (Czech Television, Leonardo broadcasting station which deals specifically with science, and Radio 6 which broadcasts in English to the whole world and has a special section dedicated to science), also national dailies (Hospodářské noviny, Lidové noviny, Mladá fronta Dnes) and online news daily Aktuálně.cz. Among weeklies we addressed Respekt which deals regularly with science in its Civilization section. From internet pages we selected osel.cz which is focused on the communication of topical research results. Furthermore, we talked to Cosmopolitan which introduces successful women, often scientists, in one of its sections.
Science is shaped and communicated variously, in labs, museums, scientific journals or schools, for various publics. The mass media are one of the important means of communication and at the same time a place where science is shaped. In our text we analysed how the mass media shape science or more precisely what science they enact. Roger Silverstone (1991) points to the problematic nature of a simplified understanding of actors in the field of communication. Firstly, according to him there is nothing as communication of science in the sense that neither the media nor science is a unified and homogenous area. There is nothing like one public but there are many publics: “the specialist and the lay; the interested and the disinterested; the powerful and the powerless; young and old; male and female. While these publics will share much, they will also understand or misunderstand, remember or forget, in different ways” (Silverstone 1991: 106-7).
All science sections in the daily press were launched approximately in the same period when sections in most Czech dailies were expanded. The science section entered the scene together with its sibling and counterpart – the health section. As several journalists mentioned, the science section was intended for male readers while the health section was intended for female readers. Next to the stereotypically masculine, expert and slightly abstract science, health is the stereotypically feminine, less expert but more practical area. Unlike political and economic news which receive approximately the same space in the individual papers, the position of science sections differs. Somewhere there are alerts to it on the cover page; elsewhere it drowns among regional news items. According to the journalists interviewed, the position of the science section depends on the decision of chief editors and editors-in-chief.
The media situate science in the sphere of secondary news for which it is important to attract readers especially by being entertaining and interesting. The expression an item of interest or to interest figures in almost all the interviews. One of the respondents refers to these articles as true sci-fi. The traditional understanding of science tends to emphasise science as a serious, intellectually demanding activity. Our respondents move between the following two poles. While they stereotypically refer to scientists’ work as a monotonous and routine repetition of experiments, the results are what is interesting. This approach could be one of the keys to explaining why the media predominantly concentrate on research results and not science in action.
Both journalists and scientists can author texts about science in the media. In both cases an article is created through an interaction between a journalist and a scientist. We distinguish two types of authorship. The first type of “communicating scientists and invisible journalist” occurs when a scientist is signed under an article while the content and form is negotiated with a journalist. Both parties usually cooperate long-term because the cooperation places high demands on invisible work – the negotiation of the whole concept of an article. In order for scientists’ texts to be publishable in newspapers, the journalists interviewed caution that they have to gradually “educate” their scientist. The second type of authorship is that of “communicating journalists and transparent scientist”. The scientist adds additional explanation of an issue at hand with which a journalist becomes acquainted in expert literature or learns about it from a press release, or a scientist’s contribution is sought if a journalist wishes to scientifically clarify current affairs. In the completed text the scientist fulfils the expert role for the public. This is closely related to the second task, the adding of an expert voice and personification of a text. The third task is to place the issue in the Czech context. If foreign research is reported, the scientist contextualises the research in the Czech research environment and shows that “Czech scientists also have something to say about the issue”.
In addition to the education of lay public, there are other particular interests on both the sides. Journalists enter into a pact with researchers. Journalists bring comprehensibility, scientists the facts. The journalist takes away an article. This imaginary contract is continually negotiated. Some journalists have built certain prestige in the eyes of the researchers, and according to the journalists the researchers are interested in accounting their results to the public. The mutual reciprocity is strengthened by including the opinions of Czech scientists in news items about foreign research studies.
In the dominant view of science popularisation which is linked to the concept of pure, academic science, there is an assumption that it is possible to distinguish in a clear and unproblematic manner between “adequate” simplification and distortion of a scientific fact (Hilgartner 1990). This “demarcation line” is constantly negotiated by scientists and journalists. Journalists often describe their work on the tone of the article or the commentary as a struggle for comprehensibility. The translation from the language of science to the language of the lay public is presented as one of the crucial skills of a journalist.
The disambiguity of science in the objectivist approach is related to the fact that scientists can be understood as a paradigmatically homogenous group. The main criterion of selecting sources for a newspaper article is not stream of thought they endorse. This issue is in the disambiguous understanding of science irrelevant because everyone by definition thinks the same. What appears important for our respondents is the ability to explain things comprehensively. In most cases the media present only research results and not the processes of creating scientific knowledge. Therefore, we were interested in how journalists approach ethically controversial issues. Journalists perceive the presence (or the absence) of these issues in the media variously. Nevertheless, they have one thing in common: ethical controversy is not present in research as such but appears on the borderline between science and society. Their presence (or absence) can be caused by the opinion of an editor or experience (or lack of thereof) on the part of the editorial board.
We described various news values to which journalists attribute importance in judging what a news item is. They mention the topicality of an issue, being interesting and comprehensible for readers. In classical works on the topic (for example, Galtung and Ruge 1965), conflict appears as another important value. However, in view of the hegemonic discourse present in the interviews with our respondents it did not appear at all.
The media mediate various scientific answers (to scientific questions) but they raise their own questions minimally. On the other hand, journalists understand scientists’ communication as something extra. Unlike politics where accounting for one’s deeds to the public is an necessary part of the public office, science is not understood as something that citizens should know about but as something that citizens could be interested in. In this respect, the fact that scientists, similarly to politicians, are largely using public funds and their decisions have important impact on society is thematised only at the economic level.