On the sidelines of Asteroid Day, astronomer and award-winning science writer Dr Stuart Clark talked to Silicon Luxembourg about the important role of science communicators.
Why is it important to have science communicators?
Clearly, science is important to all of us, whether we truly engage in it or not, to produce the fruits of science in the sense of technology, medicine, nutritional health and all that is available to us. Beyond the practical sense of it, science is about understanding the world around us with a sense of awe and wonder. It doesn’t teach us anything about the world and the wider universe if you understand what’s going on in it, it just makes it more amazing. Because nature is so much more inspiring than we think it is. Every time we learn how something works it’s always more amazing than we could dream up. That’s why I think science communication was and is important.
Has anything changed in the role of science communicator in recent years? Are the stakes higher?
Recently, I think things have changed a little bit. I think there’s now a sense of disenfranchisement from certain sectors of the population. This disenfranchisement is making them resistant to power structures and hierarchies and all the things that are there normally. And I think that science is becoming one of those things. There’s no political divide in this. Different sides of the political spectrum decide what science and technology they’re going to have a problem with, or simply reject.
We saw it in the discussions surrounding vaccine mandates, and that seems nonsensical that an established technique to build vaccines and protect against killer diseases could somehow become something that quite large numbers of people seem to have a problem with. There are other things such as the development of the private space industry, where we have extremely wealthy people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. There’s quite a big backlash against those people using their money to create these rockets to take people and eventually cargo and supplies up into space. I think we are in danger of entering a science sceptical world or of having a large part of our population science sceptical. So as communicators of science, I think we all have a new mandate to talk about what science is, what it isn’t and how it can benefit society.
“I think we all have a new mandate to talk about what science is, what it isn’t and how it can benefit society”
How can science communicators engage the science sceptics, particularly when it comes to space?
When it comes to space exploration one thing that I have discovered there is no correlation between a person’s interest in space exploration and any other factor. What I mean by that is that there was a lot of work done in the 1960s leading up to the Apollo moon landings. And only on the moon landing itself did a vast majority of people say they thought it was worth it. From then on, about half of people thought that space exploration was worthwhile and the other half thought it’s a waste of time. There is no correlation between those people and any other demographic marker. That’s fascinating to me. It means that there’s something in each of us and it can go either way as to whether you are fascinated by the universe, in what it all means and what’s out there, or it doesn’t touch you in any meaningful way. And I think it’s the role of a science communicator to try to understand that divide. It’s their role in particular to empathise and see if there’s a way we can bring these people in to acknowledge the importance of science and space exploration to our modern way of life.
“I would love to see more of the reasons why these people have done science, a little bit more of the philosophy of science, coming into science lessons”
You mentioned that sometimes science is corralled into this separate universe from arts and other subjects. Could schools correct this by taking a more multidisciplinary approach?
I think that would be a really good thing. I’ve long pondered the fact that when you’re taught science in school, you’re taught it in a way that tries to make you a scientist in the sense that you’re told the facts and the figures and the historical breakthroughs that have been made. But the actual story of doing science, and what science is, and what motivates people to do that, I don’t think that’s very well covered in school. So, people who don’t have that innate curiosity about nature, or people find other ways of trying to make sense and meaning out of the world around them in their lives. They don’t make that human connection with science done by humans, or anything else.
The humans that do science have passion, they have drive, and they have questions that they’re looking to answer. These are things that will help them make meaning out of the universe and what it means to be alive in it. If you look at other subjects, like the humanities, the English, art and things like that I feel there’s a lot more background in some of those subjects. There is more about the human motivation. I would love to see more of the reasons why these people have done science, a little bit more of the philosophy of science, coming into science lessons. I think that would help enormously, because it would mean that people could engage in it at a different level.