Science-in-society communication(s): reflections on the pasts, presents, futures of a thematic stream

by Melpomeni Antonakaki

The following reflections stem from the so-called graveyard shift at EASST 2022, i.e., the penultimate talk of the last session on the last day of the conference, in Panel 062 ‘Making science in public: Studying science communication and public engagement’. When the program was published, I realised my talk was so near the end of the conference and reluctantly faced the prospect of a receding audience participation. Heeding the advice of a colleague– “whoever is there, they are game [for a great Q&A]. This is your community” –, I felt motivated to place all my energy and hopes toward the few enduring colleagues. And what a session it proved. Room 115 filled up to the brim – tables full, people sitting on the floor, and an utterly satisfying discussion.

Writing this review, I found myself revisiting the closing remarks of convenors Sarah R. Davies and Maja Horst (in absentia Noriko Hara). They offered an account of continuity and longevity of their thematic stream on science communication spanning almost ten years –a feature both rare and noteworthy, considering how tactically and of-the-moment conference encounters often are. The convenors also extended an invitation toward the assembled community, especially early career scholars (ECRs), to join the convening labours and shape the future of the stream. In the weeks following Madrid, these remarks provided me with structure for processing my thoughts and feelings regarding the overall conference experience of EASST 2022. In particular, I found myself rethinking the terms of a widespread, albeit mostly informal, conversation in Madrid on generating and practicing sustainable ways of getting together as EASST members. I remember vividly how Maja Horst delivered more or less the same invitation to ECRs to get involved in shaping the future of the association twice – once in her capacity as president of EASST during the 2nd plenary, and once in her capacity as convenor of panel 062 during closing remarks. I personally felt much more compelled to do so, in the latter occasion. In developing the concept for this review, I sought to recover elements of what makes an interpellation like that effective and landed on the conclusion that forward looking statements by themselves will not necessarily bring us toward EASST future(s) without reflecting on, effectively sharing and flattening ownership of, the ‘biographies’ of EASST – perspectival and incomplete stories about the vehicles of EASST which have sustained themselves over years, meetings, and council’ tenures. I elaborate on this point here via offering the ‘biography’ of the stream on science communication.

Methodologically, I followed the convenors’ instances of collaboration via an archive comprising stream-related information across Nomadit collections, EASST meetings’ webpages, formal literature, and some personal communications. The stream’s early foci and concepts originated in the context of EASST 2014 (Torun), and subsequently shaped further within joint EASST/4S meetings, such as 2016 (Barcelona) and 2020 (Virtual/Prague) and 4S meetings, specifically 2019 (New Orleans) and 2021 (Virtual/Toronto). Madrid (2022) was the first solo EASST conference for this thematic stream in eight years. In what follows, I first recover and review the ‘biography’ of the thematic stream as shaped by the archival sources and my own involvement. Toward the epilogue, I reflect how preoccupations about the futures of both stream and EASST come to interact and inform one another.

The first two iterations of the stream’s call for contributions, for Torun & Barcelona, are all but identical. They both call for empirical and theoretical work onto an “often overlooked area of (what [the convenors] might call) ‘straight’ science communication – that which does not claim to formally influence policy or scientific research, and which may at first glance feature one-way communication” (Situating Solidarities, 2014). An earlier formulation of this proposition by Davies et al. casts how 

[d]ialogue events that do not seek to influence policy are spaces enabling individuals from potentially diverse cultures to come together, articulate positions and views, and interact in a context of genuine equality. It could even be argued that this could—theoretically—be a far more effective way of affecting the culture of science to become more personally relevant and democratically accountable than through public participation in policy. (2009: 345) 

This once tentative assessment was properly explored through the selection of panel participants’ papers and thematic foci of the stream between 2014 and 2019. To better showcase the significance, for STS as a whole, of consistently attending to this overlooked area, one needs only to remember how prominently another program for research featured at the time – one foregrounding a ‘normative commitment’ to the ideal of public engagement in and for science policy (Stilgoe et al., 2014: 4). Recently Davies directly addressed the limited horizon of such proclamations, pointing out how “[STS] work on participatory and dialogic forms of science communication has, therefore, taken for granted that this is valuable to society because it contributes to democracy (specifically, democratic science policy)”, leaving much else outside the scope (2021: 119). The convenors’ efforts have systematically catered to the study of science communication as generative of accounts “about democracy as much as it is about pleasure, spaces, visions, organisations, identities, professions, stories and cultures.” (Davies and Horst, 2016: 31). 

With public engagement temporarily side-lined, the study of science communication from STS perspectives could then pursue problematics such as “reflections on the role science communication may play in the democratisation of science, analyses of the constitution of publics and knowledges within particular science communication activities, or accounts of experimental practice” (Situating Solidarities, 2014). Early fruits of this strategic move comprise not only novel “explor[ations of] the boundaries of STS scholarship on science communication” (Science and technology by other means, 2016), but the overall reframing of the relation between STS and science communication (Horst et al., 2017). Observing powerful interlinkages between scientific work and the un/makings of civic life beyond conventional spaces of modern democratic politics, Horst et al. claim that:

[…] research in science communication draws attention to the role that informal engagement with science can play in scientific citizenship. In that way it enables STS scholars to observe how lay citizens use museums, popular science, or the Internet as parts of their civic lives. Equally, the foregrounding by science communication research of emotional and aesthetic responses to science—such as pleasure, excitement, entertainment, wonder, and fear—brings a new dimension to the still largely epistemic orientation of STS. (2017: 897)

In 2020, a focus on public engagement would be included within the stream’s overarching preoccupation with the dynamics of ‘making science in public’. The inclusion owes much to conceptual innovations, which had in the meantime informed the placement of research on public engagement within an ecosystem of activities, comprising all kinds of “organised actions aiming to communicate scientific knowledge, methodology, processes or practices in settings where non-scientists are a recognised part of the audience.” (Davies and Horst, 2016: 12). It was in the context of joint projects and meetings bridging EASST and 4S that the stream would re-articulate its focus on casting both science communication and public engagement as 

[k]ey mechanisms by which scientific knowledge is mediated, negotiated, and transformed. Over the past decades, STS research has outlined the ways in which science and society are co-produced through public communication activities and catalysed a shift towards dialogue and engagement in science communication practice. (Locating and Timing Matters, 2020)

This is by far the most authoritative proposition to be found in the stream’s biography, prefacing each call published ever since 2019. It claims space for STS research to function as catalytic both in and for science communication practice, while at the same time placing its thematic foci as central in and for STS scholarship. Going into the future I think it is worth reflecting further on the ethos of catalytic work – a metaphor not so preoccupied with preservation or transgression of boundaries, but with how to account for the transformative epistemic effects our engagement accelerates or precipitates. In that sense my call, during my presentation at panel 062, for the study of ‘science-in-society communication(s)’ stands for an empirical and theoretical re-orientation toward the diverging ways science media and/or science communication workers reflect on their role and participation in legitimizing or contesting emerging “knowledge-control regime[s].” (Hilgartner, 2017: 9) In the next paragraphs I use this lens and offer my own impressions from synergies among the papers presented in Madrid. 

Focusing on this year’s selection of papers, I particularly enjoyed contributions that painted rich empirical stories of how established (research or technology development) oversight mechanisms open up to public contestation. Stelmach and Smith’s paper (co-authored with Hartley) discussed gene drive as an emerging ‘global’ technology. They show how upcoming and almost certainly uncontainable field experiments with gene drive have demanded preparedness policies and have elicited promises for engaging publics in their risk assessment. Their study of how stakeholders in different countries envisage public engagement thus “contributes to the politics of opening up the under-researched and highly technical space of risk assessment” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 369). Crudgington’s video essay further contributed to the opening up of processes of (animal) research oversight governed by secrecy, confidentiality and technical specialization. In this case, it was done “[u]sing the scenario of an imaginary ethical review board tasked with future proofing vaccine productions during global pandemics, [in the context of which] participants explore more complex, nuanced, and empowering conversations in which they learn about their own views and the views of others.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 402) Refracting the perspectives of researcher and advocate, Kashouris presented anti-microbial resistance (AMR) as an epistemic object assembled at the asymmetrical encounter between ‘unambitious’ state (UK) interventions and their public contestation by chronic sufferers of UTIs, expanding “[Catherine] Will’s argument that public health approaches to AMR so far reflect loss of confidence in the public.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 435)

Another thematic spanning 062 explored technologically mediated investments in ‘dialogue’ or dialogical format(s) under accelerated circumstance (practice-, media- and place- specific). Such investments often seek to reinvent the values underpinning the terms and conditions for legitimate participation. As Rohden argued, a good case in point pertains to the “development of moderation and posting rules on several coronavirus-related subreddits. Deciding what kind of content would be allowed to be posted where and by whom, and negotiating what counted as ‘scientific’, ‘reliable’, or ‘expert’ sources of information, effectively shaped the way that knowledge about the pandemic was made visible on Reddit.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 370) Breuer and Penkler expanded on recent concerns of professional moderators to go ‘more dynamic’ with their practice, “[analysing] ‘opinion’ as an emergent object and category [which] was imagined and produced in a series of German public engagement events called “Genome Editing in Dialogue.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 370) Dolan and Riesch not only reported from their (co-authored with Mihai and Carraro) study of “how scientists and science communicators from four [science improvisation] groups have deployed improvised comedy as a form of science communication”, but also engaged in a round of “that’s right!” (a medium rooted in dialogical principles of interpersonal interaction) to showcase how experienced performers can better safeguard scientific authority against the deconstructive aspects of comedy (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 402).

The final trio of papers approached exemplary places of scientific and/or epistemic authority, i.e. the stem cell laboratory, the oncology clinic, the biotope, but from the perspectives of those who sit very low in the respective “economies of credibility” (Shapin, 1995: 268). Aarden, rendered the in-situ observation of avian wild life into a strategic multispecies alliance. His talk explored how STS can viably extend “an invitation to different kinds of ‘publics’ to visually capture and reflect on their encounters with climate change, biodiversity, etc. [as a means for providing] insight into publics’ perceptions of environmental issues that explicitly draw on their emotional, aesthetic and experiential dimensions.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 403) Van der Kamp’s paper (co-authored with Betten and Krabbenborg) presented us with a hashtag used by women living with incurable cancer, which openly challenges established codes of propriety in constructing credibility and communicating biomedical knowledge on Instagram. “[The authors] argue that the next step for science communicators is to explore to what extent these stories can and should become part of the biomedical discourse in order to enrich deliberation and decision making processes on the development and implementation of new technologies.” (Politics of Technoscientific Futures, 2022: 434) 

My own contribution discussed the role of investigative journalism during one of the most tumultuous and consequential episodes of research misconduct investigation of the 21st century, the so-called STAP cell case at the prestigious Japanese research organization RIKEN (2014-2017). I was taken by the effectiveness of one such investigative reportage in particular, which questioned the credibility of the official RIKEN investigation and argued for the epistemic significance of previously unadmitted evidence of misconduct. The reactions forced the hand of RIKEN in reopening the case under a new committee. The reportage also directly attacked the legitimacy of replication experiments on the STAP cell technique, casting them as sites for contesting in the public eye the boundaries of in/acceptable scientific conduct as much as problematizing notions of the “public’s right to know(ledge)” – a co-production I analysed using the concept of scientific citizenship (Irwin, 2001: 4) and the lens of science-in-society communication.

To conclude, in recovering the ‘biography’ of this thematic stream I came to recognize it as a network of researchers, theoretical orientations, distributed practical and intellectual resources, mentoring, sense of belonging, publication plans, etc. Against this backdrop, my proposal for the EASST community would be a shift of perspective: instead of using convening work as the machinery for gathering a distributed network in one place at one time, what about using the geographically and even temporally distributed network as machinery for reimagining the labours and values of convening work? I hope this review starts a conversation, which situates the imaginations and attempts for new conference formats within experience stemming from already existing sustainable collaborations, like, but not be limited to, panel 062. 

Acknowledgment: Participating at EASST 2022 would have been impossible without the generous offer of a conference fee waiver (EASST Grant), so thanks go out to the scientific committee for their support. I want to acknowledge the role of specific individuals in further facilitating good conditions of participation for me. Special thanks go to B. Kasparek, Z. Vasilyeva, C. Cuevas Garcia and S. Pfotenhauer. I am grateful to A. Maibaum for a good piece of advice. Two colleagues read and commented on early drafts of the review, and for this thank you, C. Mendes and F. Rohden.




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