People’s understanding of science is crucial in today’s high-tech societies, as scientific discoveries and their applications have an impact on our health, the environment and the economy. Climate change is seemingly contributing to extreme weather phenomena even in Europe, anti-vaccine misinformation is widely recognised as a cause of the upsurge of epidemics of diseases we thought we had conquered, and artificial intelligence has started transforming our jobs and economies.
But how well is the science of such issues communicated around Europe? Is there enough science communication and is it of high enough quality? And how can it be improved further?
These are just some of the questions that are being tackled by a large, international research project called QUEST, QUality and Effectiveness in Science and Technology communication, which has gathered together experts in various aspects of science communication, from journalism and social media to museums and academia. QUEST is focusing specifically on three case studies of emerging controversial issues with a significant impact on citizens’ daily lives: climate change, vaccines, artificial intelligence.
Sarah R Davies, from the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, one of the researchers on the QUEST project : “Science communication remains a dispersed, multidisciplinary and multi sectoral field. […] I hope that QUEST can help join some of the dots between, for instance, scholars and practitioners, museum professionals and journalists, or social media specialists and scientists.”
So what is the state of science communication in Europe and is it actually reaching ordinary people?
Sarah R Davies : “That’s a big question – and one of the things I think QUEST aims to investigate. I think we continue to be in need of thoughtful research into science communication. QUEST offers an opportunity to be involved in such research, at an international and comparative level.”
One of the big issues that QUEST will explore are the contemporary practices and challenges in science journalism, in order to try and understand to what extent there are still opportunities for slower journalistic investigation, allowing for reflection and discussion.
Sarah R Davies : “Journalism generally is undergoing significant structural changes, as legacy media find it harder to survive. Traditional science reporting is under intense pressure. One thing that is at stake is critical, investigative science journalism.”
Another big issue for the project is the spread of fake news on social media.
Fabiana Zollo, Assistant Professor at Ca’ Foscari University and Research Fellow in the Venice Center for the Humanities and Social Change : “We are working to analyse, design, test, and evaluate different strategies to improve science communication on social media, especially in the case of delicate and polarising topics that need to be addressed with care, such as climate change or vaccines.”
Her colleagues and she have been studying this issue for several years already, finding evidence of echo chambers and confirmation bias – the human tendency to look for information that is coherent with one’s system of beliefs. They now continue their research as part of the QUEST project.
Fabiana Zollo : “Users in a same community share a common narrative and, immersed in echo chambers, select information coherent to their worldview, even when false, ignoring information dissenting from their beliefs. Users from different and contrasting communities rarely interact and, when that happens, the debate degenerates.”
Informed by the team’s research results, she thinks that to fight misinformation and to encourage effective communication, it will be essential to smooth out polarisation of people debating on social media. How to do that using tailored counter-narratives and appropriate communication strategies is one of the tasks for QUEST.
The team is starting by identify what the state-of-the-art of science communication on social media is at the moment. To do this, they are analysing data from more than 680 Twitter accounts, 490 Facebook pages and 390 YouTube channels that aim at communicating science in 7 countries: Germany, Estonia, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway and the UK.
Fabiana Zollo : “We will consider how scientific topics are presented to the public, and analyse users’ response to contents. Our aim is to develop a common definition on what constitutes quality and effective science communication on social media and, thus, a series of guidelines for good communication.
Then, together with our stakeholders, we are going to test such guidelines on social media for their evaluation and possible refinement. In the end, we hope to identify the appropriate strategies to promote quality and effective science communication on social media.”