Across the world, we are seeing evidence of continued polarisation, not just in politics, but across the whole culture. This polarisation has become particularly more evident with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and the misinformation circulating around its origin and the ways in which we can stop its spread. How information is communicated and shared across the internet is producing challenges for governments and in particular, for individuals who work within the field of science communication.
Over the past five years, the science communication field has been experiencing new challenges affecting their work. These challenges have grown new heads with the creation of new technologies, which do provide advantages and solve problems but they also create others in the process. Our access to technology has demonstrated that the world has become simultaneously more immediate but more dispersed. To support the science communication field we need a global picture of how science communication professionals work and the challenges they are facing.
We sat down with Fiona Smyth, lead researcher of the new EU project GlobalSCAPE, a new EU project which aims to capture this global picture of science communication coordinated by Trinity College Dublin under PI Joseph Roche. We find out from Fiona how this project plans to capture such a picture, why it would benefit Europe to gain such a picture, and how the work carried out in GlobalSCAPE will help towards tackling some of the challenges this field is facing.
Q. What is GlobalSCAPE implementing and what is it trying to achieve?
Before the project even began, work had been ongoing for some time on the concept behind GlobalSCAPE, particularly on refining a methodology that could take stock of challenges and fluctuations, not just by locations, but also over time. That is central to what GlobalSCAPE is all about, generating a holistic image of science communication and the challenges encountered by science communicators, not just in the moment, but over time and across different geographical locations. The overall aim of GlobalSCAPE is to generate a detailed picture of science communication in a global context, particularly ensuring that the voices of science communicators in regions where taking stock of science communication is often difficult and under-valued are heard and taken on board.
Q. Where did the idea for GlobalSCAPE come from and ultimately, why is GlobalSCAPE necessary?
The idea for GlobalSCAPE came from cognisance that the bulk of research in characterising science communication has been concentrated on the state of play in Europe and the US, and as such, it is not a fully representative picture.
“There are voices in science communication that, for various reasons, are under-represented.”
Not only do these voices and circumstances need to be recognised, but they also need to be represented, and the hurdles encountered by science communicators beyond Europe and the US need to be identified. We are also aware, however, that hurdles change over time. They develop, increase, or recede. In order for GlobalSCAPE to generate a fully representative picture, the study needs to be fine-grained and it needs to take account of these changes that occur over time.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the radical changes to how we work and interact, the need for a study that can take stock of the challenges and inequality, and how these change over time has become even more pressing. The priorities of GlobalSCAPE have been accentuated even further by the pandemic.
Q. How will GlobalSCAPE gather the data it needs?
GlobalSCAPE uses a methodology that is based on automated diary studies. Participants will use their phones or smart devices to input information on a regular basis over the course of a year. This way, we can map changes over time, and also disaggregate responses and data to see how different groups are impacted, and what factors are responsible for those impacts.
Q. How does the project fit in with the current EU objectives and programmes and within the landscape of other research and innovation projects?
The relationship between science and society – and building trust in that relationship – is of critical importance to the EU’s objectives in meeting societal challenges. GlobalSCAPE was funded under the Science with and for Society (SwafS) pillar of the Horizon 2020 Work Programme. More specifically, it was funded under SwafS-19: Taking stock and re-examining the role of science communication with the specific objective of assessing science communication and its perception by citizens, in order to increase that trust. GlobalSCAPE’s objectives – which are predicated upon transparency, understanding, accuracy and equitability – resonate very strongly with this priority.
Q. Why does looking at science communication challenges globally support the work we do in Europe?
Europe is part of a bigger picture, and we have a lot to learn from how that bigger picture is composed. Our work and practice are always enriched by interactions and multiple perspectives, and a level playing field requires that policies and education be aware of that bigger picture.
Q. GlobalSCAPE will be present in multiple countries from Mexico to Australia, how do these countries benefit from this project?
The Covid-19 pandemic combined with rapid changes in technology (and how we use it) as well as information access, have demonstrated that the world has become simultaneously more immediate and more dispersed. GlobalSCAPE’s presence in multiple countries brings the best aspects of that immediacy to the fore, by ensuring that participants are part of a network that can be built upon in numerous ways and also by ensuring that their perspectives are heard and documented in GlobalSCAPE’s outputs. This is key to mitigating challenges in future policies, continuing professional development events and education, and hopefully levelling the playing field to a greater extent.
Another core component of the project is the GlobalSCAPE mobility scheme. This has been devised to fund science communication professionals from around the world to attend professional development workshops that will help support them in their work and also provide support in navigating a field that is constantly changing and evolving. This we hope gives something back to the communities we will be involving throughout the GlobalSCAPE research, and also enables network-building to continue at a professional and international level.
Q. Science communication is a broad area of work, are we just focussing on one particular group or many?
One of our findings so far has been that science communication embraces huge diversity in its definition as a profession. GlobalSCAPE will reach out to as many groups as possible, from science journalists to practitioners, in order to engage as many perspectives as possible and compile a fully representative picture.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges we face in science communication?
We are living through a time of radical and rapid change, especially in light of expanding access to information, an ever-connected world and the creation of new, emerging technologies. This comes with attendant advantages and disadvantages. Newer challenges are still emerging as a result of the pandemic. We anticipate that the diary studies will elucidate these to a much greater extent. Since the diary studies are implemented over the course of a year, they will take stock of fluctuations and changes, leaving us in a much better position to identify the challenges.
Q. What’s the end goal for GlobalSCAPE in Europe and in the countries GlobalSCAPE will carry out the research?
The end goal of GlobalSCAPE is increased knowledge, insight and perspectives in order to further our understanding of the science communication field and leave us better equipped to pre-empt or circumnavigate challenges that face science communicators. The purpose of moving beyond the European landscape of science communication to examine the broader global context is multi-fold. In the first instance, a full global picture has never been mapped before. The existing picture is skewed. For maximum utility and effectiveness, policy and education need to be cognisant of the full picture.
“We need to hear all of the voices in science communication – not just those that are more prominent.”
The next step for GlobalSCAPE is to address what we find and to embed these in education and policy recommendations so as to make science communication more accessible, more equitable, and more effective.