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Scientific communication or Science communication is an aspect of professional communication and is the sum of all those processes by which scientific culture and knowledge is incorporated into the common culture. [1]

What is Science Communication?

Science communication is a discipline that has developed rapidly in theory and in practice since 1995 (see below). In Australia, in 1996, the formation of the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University (ANU) heralded the start of the science communication movement. The new approach aimed to involve the public more in the processes and culture of science, to create an awareness of what science was attempting to achieve, to cultivate the ‘need to know’ that is the hallmark of good communication.

It has become an important issue of public policy since 1990. It is, however, one of respectable antiquity[2], dating at least from the origins of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century. For examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century science communication seeFurther Reading. Indeed, it has been argued that the purpose of the Royal Society was one of communication, to assist in the application of the ‘New Philosophy’ to the defence of the Realm, most particularly by way of the Royal Navy[3].

It is commonly accepted that there are five general categories under which arguments can be made for the importance of the communication of science. They are (i) the economic argument (the contribution science can make to the national economy and individual wealth), (ii) the utilitarian argument (people owe much of their health and well-being to scientific invention), (iii) the democratic argument (to be fully informed enfranchises people), (iv) The cultural argument (the best science is, in company with the best of other areas endeavour, high art) and (v) the social argument (at every evolutionary stage – stone, bronze, iron, industrial, biological – science underpins the evolution of society)[4].

Early History of Science Communication

Although in the decades after the founding of the Royal Society there was much discussion, in formal and informal gatherings, about scientific matters and the new philosophy, such gatherings were drawn from the upper classes of society. Not surprisingly, there was little attempt to engage the interest of the rural working classes. In the eighteenth century, however, the Industrial Revolution created a new type of urban working man who necessarily had to engage with the multifarious applications of the ‘new philosophy’. The establishment of the Royal Institution in 1799 was the first real attempt to involve all classes of society. It recruited to its lecture hall and laboratories men of the middle class, like Humphry Davy, and of the lower class, like Michael Faraday.

In 1831, there was an important meeting of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and inventor of the first mechanical calculating engine and Sir David Brewster, famous for his researches into optics, urged the formation of a national association to improve the standing of science in society. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was formed. Amongst its objectives was:

to obtain more general attention for the objects of science and the removal of any disadvantages of a public kind which impede its progress.

British Association for the Advancement of Science[5]

Once established, the British Association catalysed the formation of similar societies in other countries. The list includes the American (1848), Australian and New Zealand (1888), South African (1903) Associations and the Indian Science Congress (1888). Many other associations, such as that of Canada, were modelled on the British Association.

An important consequence of this movement was that science came to be seen as a way to escape the constraints of class in Britain. Among the great science communicators of the nineteenth century was Thomas Henry Huxley, famous for his role in championing Darwin’s evolutionary theory. A poor boy from an impoverished lower middle class family he ended his career glittering with the highest honours in the land. Huxley worked indefatigably to bring science to the common man and was a great supporter of the ‘Mechanics' Institutes’ that proliferated throughout the world. These Institutes, whose buildings can still be seen in many country towns in England and Australia, were the focus of libraries, lectures and debate about scientific issues. As a consequence of this activity, the great science museums came into being and universities founded faculties and colleges of science and technology. It became accepted that science was the way to personal and national prosperity[6][7].

The 1914-18 war provided a huge stimulus for applied science and technology. It also created an army of scientists and technologists and, between the wars, a feeling of euphoria, that science would provide the answer to all human problems. The 1939-45 war damped this enthusiasm, while the explosion of the atomic bomb sowed the seeds of disillusionment with science that have characterised the last sixty years[8][9].

At first, in the flood of young men and women returning from the war to resume their education universities, not to mention the ‘peri-war’ baby boom, provided a huge stimulus for the growth of science and led to the proliferation of universities in the 1950s and 60s. But paradoxically, interest in science as a career was declining, so much so that by 1971 there was sufficient concern to encourage the authorities to do something.

PUS, PEST or PAS The Recent History of Science Communication

It was clear that a new approach was needed[10]. For a hundred years there had been great museums whose press-button exhibits had enthralled countless children. For example, in the United States, the Smithsonian Institution had been established 1846 with a legacy from James Smithson, a British Scientist, while the Science Museum of London was a ‘spin off’ from the Great Exhibition of London.

By 1970, they were no longer enough. Interest in science as a career had declined world wide, and has continued to decline to the present day. The museums were viewed as repositories of the science of the last century. Although they remained fascinating to children who already had scientific leanings, the appeal of science to a wider public was declining. A new approach was needed.

In the United States, the outstanding example of proactive science communication was San Francisco’s Exploratorium. As influential in its way as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, it opened for business in 1969:

The Exploratorium was conceived to communicate a conviction that nature and people can be both understandable and full of newly discovered magic.[11]

It provided a template for the creation of other science centres, notably, in 1988, Questacon, Australia’s National Centre for Science and Technology.

In Britain, the response was to set up the Standing Conference on Schools Science and Technology (SCSST). One of its objectives was “to influence the teaching of science in ways which will appeal to young people”.

The SCSST promoted the formation of a Science and Engineering Technology Network.[12] It encouraged scientific activity across the UK by creating regional clearing houses for information about science,, engineering, technology and mathematics. An enviable network of science educators, to support the science curriculum in schools and universities, was established. This movement became known by the unhappy acronym of PUS (Public Understanding of Science).

The PUS approach dominated in the UK in the last decades of the twentieth century. Implicit in this approach is a model for communication which is best described as the conduit metaphor, the idea that knowledge flows from one person (the transmitter) to another (the receiver), arriving unchanged at its destination. If we just show them our arguments, said the scientists, they will immediately understand. They made the erroneous assumption that their tools of their discourse – representational graphs, figures, formulae and equations – can be easily understood by a non-scientific audience. What is hidden, even from the scientists themselves, are the many years they have spent acquiring this informational currency. Another assumption that they may have is that there exists a public whose interest in science is unfulfilled. This is known as ‘the deficit model’ and derives from an influential – if misguided – survey by Durant et al. (1989)[13] of general knowledge of scientific ‘facts’ that drew conclusions about the ignorance of the public.

The major effect of PUS in the UK was to provide support for those already captivated by science. This was an admirable endeavour but it was one that tended to exclude the wider community. The problems that the Science and Engineering Networks were set up to address did not go away – they became considerably worse. The failure of scientists to share their science, in an easily understandable form, with the community, together with the perception that science is difficult and poor career structures for scientists combined to drive able people into alternative professions.

In the US in 1994, the Clinton statement entitled "Science in the National Interest" (August 3, 1994) exhorted:

We challenge them (our scientists and technologists) to continue their vigorous exploration of the frontiers of scientific knowledge and simultaneously to ensure that all Americans share their vision of the excitement, the beauty and the utility of science in achieving our national goals.[10]

The following year, in the UK , the Wolfendale Report of the Royal Society stated that:

In a changing world, the maintenance of research support, and hopefully its enhancement, and also the increased take-up of science and engineering subjects by people of all ages, will depend on public appreciation of science and engineering and their practitioners.[14]

The 1999 Budapest World Conference on Science ended its six-day meeting by adopting a Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The Declaration is a political commitment to wide-ranging principles for promoting science and technology in the long term.[15]

The writing was on the wall. Anxiety about the future of science all over the world was a clear indication that the PUS movement, in spite of all the efforts of its proponents, was failing. This was made clear in 2000 by a stark report from the British House of Lords entitled Select Committee on Science and Society. The report begins by stating that “society’s relationship with science is in a critical phase”, citing recent developments in biotechnology and the mad cow disease disaster as eroding public confidence and creating public unease.

The Select Committee emphasised the need for science communicators to encourage exchange of information and ideas between scientists and the public so that communication became more of a two-way process.

It is a revolutionary document. Most practicing scientists did not – and, perhaps, still do not - hold communication in high esteem. (At the ANU, one eminent professor, when faced with a proposal to include a unit of science communication in the science degree opposed it with remark that he could not accede to any proposal that would weaken the science degree.) The Report recommended that all scientists include training in communication as well as in understanding the social context of their research. It described PUS as a "rather backward-looking vision" and argued that it implies:

a condescending assumption that any difficulties in the relationship between science and society are due entirely to ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of the public; and that, with enough public-understanding activity, the public can be brought to greater knowledge, whereupon all will be well. This approach[27] is felt by many of our witnesses to be inadequate; the British Council went so far as to call it "outmoded and potentially disastrous" (p 140).[16]

The Report suggest a new term to replace this “backward looking vision”, the abandonment of ‘Public Understanding’ for ‘Public Awareness’. This was not adopted; the term ‘Public Engagement’ emerged as the preferred option. Sadly, this leads to a second unhappy acronym. PEST (Public Engagement with Science and Technology) is now frequently encountered.[17]

A Hierarchy of Scientific Communication

There is a hierarchy of science communication.

Science education is the teaching of science in formal settings, in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. The teaching of science in informal settings has two components: The first is the public understanding of science while the second is the public awareness of science.

The public understanding of science may be defined as the comprehension of scientific facts, ideas and policies, combined with a knowledge of the impact such facts, ideas and policies have on the personal, social and economic well-being of the community.

The public understanding of science usually concerns that part of the public already committed to the philosophies of science, having been entrained by formal means. It is best illustrated by the membership of non-professional science-based societies (bird watching, gemstone, tree-planting, for example), by public lectures and adult education courses and in the provision of extracurricular learning opportunities for those pursuing formal education in science. In this way, it differs from the public awareness of science, the objective of which is to reach that greater proportion of the public that has yet to be so entrained.

In an analysis of the changes that interactive science centres bring about in their visitors, it was concluded that public awareness of science and technology:

is a set of attitudes, a predisposition towards science and technology, which are based on beliefs and feelings and which are manifest in a series of skills and behavioural intentions. The skills of accessing scientific and technological knowledge and a sense of ownership of that knowledge will impart a confidence to explore its ramifications. This will lead, at some time, to an understanding of key ideas/products and how they came about, to an evaluation of the status of scientific and technological knowledge and its significance for personal, social and economic life.[18]

In real life, these convenient categories blur into one another. They are useful, however, in helping to make decisions about allocation of resources. Increasing the public understanding of science creates an intelligent, informed and skilled component of society that will act as an extremely valuable resource for community. Increasing public awareness of science is a much more difficult endeavour but one that, if successful, contributes enormously to social well-being by creating a better informed community that is confident in its possession of scientific ideas and is comfortable about raising children to have the same confidence[19].

Science communication in Australia

Hitherto, this article has been concerned largely with the northern hemisphere. Australia, however, suffers from the same problems as other parts of the world. In the last decade of the twentieth century the retention of children into year 12 – the final year – at school doubled, mainly because more girls completed secondary school. In the same period, enrollment in science subjects dropped by ten percent: science as taught at school is clearly not attractive to girls.

In 1987 a unique relationship between a National Science Centre and a university was established. Sparked by the need for a travelling outreach program, Questacon’s Science Circus explainers became graduate diploma students at the ANU. Graduate programs expanded to fill a need beyond that of the Science Circus. In 1996, ANU’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) was launched by Richard Dawkins. Foreshadowing the conclusion reached by the British House of Lords more than ten years later, CPAS adopted the philosophy of ‘Public Awareness’. Its thrust was not directed solely at increasing public understanding of science. Rather, it was concerned with increasing public awareness of science, fostering in the community a 'need to know' and encouraging the community to take possession of science and orchestrate its own learning.

As elsewhere, public policy was slow to respond to this rapidly growing disenchantment with science. In 1989, the Science and Technology Awareness Program (STAP)[20] was put in place by the Australian Government. Designed to showcase Australian Science, it was and is only modestly funded, the greatest proportion being expended on the Prime Minister's Prize for Science and the Australian Science Olympiad teams. About one million dollars was available for competitive grants in 2000, spread over many small though worthy projects. This is to be compared with the billions of dollars, from Millennium funds, expended in Britain in the same period.

There were also a number of non-government initiatives. An Australian Science Festival,[21] based in Canberra and inspired by the Edinburgh International Science Festival, was inaugurated in 1991. It has proved immensely popular and was clearly an idea whose time had come. It rapidly evolved into a national Australian Science Week, with more than a million people participated in a wide range of events.

With the emergence of science communication as a discipline in Australia, and with a growing body of graduate science communicators, a society, Australian Science Communicators Inc (ASC)[22] was founded in 1995. ASC sponsors both national and international conferences and generally provides a forum for science communicators. It has chapters in all the capital cities that develop their own functions to promote science communication. Popular presentations such as 'Science in the Pub', in which a speaker or speakers address scientific issues under the most informal of circumstances or 'Science Now' with young scientists talking about their science and acting as attractive role models for young people, are proliferating.

Science communication in Canada

Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario currently offers Canada's only university graduate program in science communication. The program, a ten-month graduate diploma, is offered in conjunction with Science North, the city's science museum.

See also


  1. Bryant, C. (2003). Does Australia Need a More Effective Policy of Science Communication?. International Journal for Parasitology 33: 357–361.
  2. Huxley J. (1944). Living in a Revolution, London: Chatto and Windus.
  3. Lomas R. (2002). The Invisible College, London: Headline.
  4. Stocklmayer S., Gore M.M. and Bryant C. (eds.) (2002). Science Communication in Theory and Practice., Kluwer Academic Publishers, Nordrecht, the Netherlands: Headline.
  5. History of the BA
  6. Desmond, A. (1994). Huxley. The Devil’s Disciple, London: Michael Joseph.
  7. Treneer, A. (1963). The Mercurial Chemist. A Life of Sir Humphrey Davy, London: Methuen.
  8. Jungk, R. (1958). Brighter than a 1000 Suns. The Moral and Political History of Atomic Scientists, London: Gollancz and Hart Davies.
  9. Eckersley, R. (2001). In S. Stocklmayer, M.M. Gore and C.Bryant (eds.) Science Communication in Theory and Practice, Nordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Clinton Statement
  11. Exploratorium, 24 November, 2007.
  12. SCSST
  13. Durant, John R., Geoffrey A. Evans, Geoffrey P. Thomas (1989). The public understanding of science. Nature 340: 11–14.
  14. Wolfendale Report
  15. Budapest World Conference
  16. Science and Society
  17. Public Engagement
  18. Gilbert, J.K. & Stocklmayer S.M., Mental modeling in science and technology centres. What are visitors really doing? In S. Stocklmayer and T. Hardy (Eds.) Proceedings of the International Conference on Learning Science in Informal Contexts. pp 16-32. Questacon Canberra.
  19. Stocklmayer, S., Gore, M. and Bryant C. (2005). In M. Keen, V.A. Brown, and R. Dyball. Social Learning in Environmental Management, London and Sterling VA: Earthscan Publications Ltd..
  20. STAP
  21. Australian Science Festival
  22. ASC

Further reading

Examples of 18th and 19th Century Science Communication

  • White, G. (1789). The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.
  • Miller, H. (1841). The Old Red Sandstone or New Walks in an Old Field, Edinburgh: John Jonstone.
  • Darwin, C. (1845). The Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle around the World (2nd Edition), London: John Murray.
  • Orr’s Circle of the Sciences (1856). A Series of Treatises on the Principles of Science with their Application to Practical Pursuits, London: Wm. S. Orr and Co..
  • Laing, S. (1890). Modern Science and Modern Thought, London: Chapman and Hall.