Science communication (SciCom) – the essence and future of public policy and scientific research. As humankind finds itself confronted with one of the greatest challenges of our time – that is, climate change – SciCom has revealed itself to be essential to cultivate adequate public will formation.
That the notion of science has become an integral part of political decision-making has hitherto been both a blessing and a curse for the Western political landscape.
To find out why science and policy are inherently intertwined fields, and why we should caution against their misleading narratives of legitimacy, tap the link in our bio.
Science communication – certainly one of the most pertinent fields for the future development of public policy and society. As Western democracies are facing perhaps the greatest challenge of humankind – that is, climate change – preventative and protective policies ought to be at the very top of every government’s agenda. Meanwhile, scientists and academics have unambiguously demonstrated that designing adequate policy appears to be feasible. As discussed in one of our previous articles, rallying green-voting majorities, proves to be much tougher. For officials to accumulate political capital for climate-related questions, the process of public opinion formation needs to be revisited. In addressing this very issue, the information age’s imperative is clear: science, communicate (properly)!
What science communication means
Science communication (SciCom) can be defined as “the use of appropriate skills, media, activities, and dialogue to produce one or more of the following personal responses to science: Awareness, Enjoyment, Interest, Opinion-forming, and Understanding” (Burns, O’Connor & Stocklmayer, 2001). Albeit related to the fields of public awareness of science (PAS), public understanding of science (PUS), scientific culture (SC), and scientific literacy (SL), scholars differentiate SciCom distinctively.
That SciCom has gained salience for the general public in the past decade, both in practice and research, is surely not a novelty. From activists appealing to governments to “listen to the science” at international climate conferences, to governments employing the narrative of “following the science” amid an unknown pandemic in early 2020: the complex relationship between science and public policy is a hauntingly pertinent one.
In politics, science has a vested interest, too
As governments find themselves plunged into a dreadful simultaneity of crises – a war, inflation, an energy crisis, and looming public deficits – the executive branch occasionally resorts to science as a source of legitimacy when uncertainty unfolds.
Inevitably, when politicians communicate science, they do so with a vested interest. While those in favour of a concrete line of action leverage scientific evidence for their proposals, opponents “invoke scientific uncertainty or competing scientific results” (McKee, 2022) as counterarguments.
And public opinion expects governments to do so: in an annual survey (Wissenschaftsbarometer, 2021), conducted by the German organisation Wissenschaft im Dialog, 69% of the German population believe that political decisions should be based on scientific findings. Further, in a Eurobarometer survey on “European citizens’ knowledge and attitudes towards science and technology”, published in September 2021, more than two-thirds (68%) stated that scientists should “intervene in political debates to ensure that decisions take into account scientific evidence”, given that 86% of EU citizens believe that the overall influence of science and technology is positive.
Yet, as the figure below suggests, Europe remains divided upon the question of scientists’ intervention in political decisions. With Italy and France amongst those member states who opt most for limiting science’s interference with political decisions, here, the infamous European West-East fragmentation does not hold.
“Advisers advise, ministers decide”
The relationship between science and politics is an established one in academia. An attempt to shed light and characterise the latter, Roger A. Pielke, Jr. defined four roles scientists can be classified as: the “pure scientist”, merely presenting evidence, the “science arbiter”, answering queries for decision-makers as resource for evidence, the “issue advocate”, conducting policy advisory, and the “honest broker”: the one providing a wide range of policy proposals for the decision-maker to then decide upon. While the former two do not engage with the policymaker as for the substance of policies, the latter two do so with intent.
Yet, scholars have long contested claims to preserve the artificial demarcation between science and policy when it comes to advisory positions. Indeed, it was already in 1994 that Shella Jasanoff, a sociologist, posited that science advisers as policymakers had emerged as a “formidable fifth branch of government” – and the Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably revealed to which extent it did so.
The case of the UK: when science becomes a secret
As the Covid-19 pandemic struck the UK, government officials vowed that their measures would entirely be derived from “the science”: equipped with the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), the government leveraged its decision-making authority with an official advisory body. The objective? Embellishing the government’s measures amid uncertainty with legitimacy – or at least, ostensibly do so.
To the public, SAGE was an obscure entity: its participants remained undisclosed, and so did the scientific consensus reached in the SAGE’s meetings.
– “The science was, essentially a secret”.
Yet, given today’s omnipotence of misinformation – such as for Brexit and the 2016 US presidential campaign –, scientists have long been appealing to the very oppositive: that is, to open communication and data to the public in order to uphold trust in science.
Hence, amid growing controversy surrounding SAGE, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Sir David King, proposed a veritably independent body that would become the Independent SAGE. Its vocation was a rather poor testimony of the official advisory body: to surmount the government’s deficits in communicating science to the public.
Lessons to be learned
In its own assessment one year after its creation, Independent SAGE identified two phenomena deemed “critical to [its] success”: first, regular and accessible communication to the public, taking the shape of reports, social media, and mainstream media that articulates advice “within the context of people’s questions and concerns”; that is, rather bottom up than top down and independent from the filthy arena of politics. Second, the working culture within Independent SAGE that was one of internal learning, taking a cross-disciplinary approach.
Besides own praise, Independent SAGE emphasises framing of messages as one of its weaknesses. Policy proposals, Independent SAGE admitted, ought to be accompanied by the objectives of the respective suggestions, following the syntax structure of “to achieve that, we propose this now”.
When science becomes inherently political
Questions of legitimacy also surfaced in the relationship between the government and Independent SAGE.
Fears that amplified activism in policy proposals would undermine the scientific integrity of the independent body prompted hesitation. Independent SAGE found itself haunted by threats of politicisation and dependence.
This fear is not a novel one. In “How science makes environmental controversies worse”, scholar Daniel Sarewitz posits that scientific inquiry is inevitably subject to politicisation in environmental controversies, citing various examples from the past. First, opponents in politics can choose on their own contradictory or complementary findings of relevant scientific evidence that align with their interests. In this vein, the inherent uncertainty of scientific findings can quickly be sold to the public as a lack of coherence amongst competing scientific understandings; an effect that is even more pronounced as science is conducted in societies that amplify a presupposed incoherence.
Science should not give political leverage
From a more holistic perspective, the picture might not look as gloomy. If in the aforementioned 2021 Eurobarometer, half of respondents (50%) agreed that “we can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because they depend more and more on money from industry”, agreement to this very sentence has fallen by 8% in the past decade. Likewise, disagreement for this question has risen by 5 percentage points.
Given vast waves of mis- and disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic in the past year, it comes as a surprise that science as government advisory has not entirely witnessed its own demise. While science communication continues to be undermined by corporatisation, politicisation, and the dissemination of “alternative facts”, governments may learn that transparent and independent science are worth the price of political capital.
In politics, fallibility is not a virtue
Indeed, at the heart of political scientific communication lies a virtue of fallibility – an inherent part of scientists’ methodology when formulating hypotheses. In politics, fallibility is not a virtue but a weakness, and humility does not necessarily find fertile soils.
Ultimately, the imperative might be thus another one these days.
– To put it briefly: politicians, communicate science properly!
Burns, T.W. & O’Connor, D.J. & Stocklmayer S.M (2003, April 1). Science communication: a contemporary
definition. Sage Publication. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/09636625030122004
European Commission (2021, September). European citizens’ knowledge and attitudes towards science and
technology, Special Eurobarometer 516. Fieldwork: April – May 2021. Retrieved from https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2237
Jasanoff, S. (1994, December 1). Fifth Branch – Science Advisers as Policymakers: Science Advisers as Policymakers (Revised).
McKee, M. et al. (2022, January 15). Open science communication: The first year of the UK’s Independent Scientific
Advisory Group for Emergencies. Health Policy, Volume 126, Issue 3, 2022, Pages 234-244. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168851022000069
Wissenschaft im Dialog (2021). Wissenschaft im Dialog. Wissenschaft im Dialog. Retrieved from