by Clare Wilkinson
12th November 2020

This article is part of the Association of University Presses Blog Tour to celebrate University Press Week, 9-15 November. Each day on the blog tour brings a new theme that reflects different aspects of this… today’s is Scientific Voices. You can read all the articles featured in the tour here.

Like many publishing projects this one started like any other. An exchange of emails, a flurry of ideas, and a conversation over tea in a university coffee shop, followed by a shake of hands. What’s changed since that initial conversation is that we are now experiencing a global pandemic.

No more physical greetings or coffee shop meetings, instead conversations conducted by Zoom and significant ramifications which impact on our personal and professional lives. However, what hasn’t changed in that time period, and what’s perhaps come even more to the fore, is the role of science communication. In many senses this is an optimum, if exceptionally challenging and sensitive time, to launch a book series on Contemporary Issues in Science Communication, though science communication can still be a field which is relatively unknown for many working in academia.

Science Communication has an extensive global history, but its UK efforts particularly came to the fore post 1985, with the publication of a well-known report, the ‘Bodmer report’ on Public Understanding of Science. Since then science communication has emerged as a space for an eclectic range of disciplines to consider how science and research more broadly is communicated, and importantly engaged around. This means it can encompass disciplinary insights from scholars in a range of social sciences, including informal learning and education, communication and media studies, science and technology studies, psychology, the arts, history, philosophy and more. A recent study of published research in the field identified that research has increased over the last four decades and become more ‘pluralistic’, whilst those receiving training in science communication can range undergraduate and postgraduate students, to working scientists, as well as those who work at science museums and other public sites. Science communication has porous boundaries, is often reluctant to provide exclusive definitions (for example, Trench and Buchhi’s discussion of an emerging discipline), and thus can attract people from a wider range of interests, as well as practical and/or theoretical insights.

Returning to the coffee shop, during those first conversations about a potential book series there were a number of key topics discussed. This included the ways that ‘Fake’ news and digital marketing are changing the context for science journalism. How emerging political eras are altering the way we think about expertise and trust in policymaking, as well as the power of protest. How inclusivity is being considered in science communication from the perspectives of gender, class, disability, ethnicity and other ‘intersectional’ perspectives. As well as underexplored issues within science communication, such as the relationship between public health topics, medical settings and patient and public involvement.

Since then such topics have become all-encompassing in the context of COVID-19. Topics which are not only relevant for science communication scholars, but for academics working over a wide range of disciplines, for policymakers seeking an evidence base to inform decision making, to science museums and centres battling for their survival in a time of ‘lockdowns’, and members of the public encountering the latest data visualisations broadcast live into their homes. Of course, the main priority is not academic in this global context. People are losing their lives, their incomes, their social contact, and their loved ones, but many science communicators will have a desire to contribute their expertise at this time.

This means we are already seeing an emergence of academic science communication work in this area. Studies are examining a range of topics including fake news, media framing, disinformation, use of metaphors, governmental responses, public perceptions, as well as how particular communities are being more directly impacted. A useful special issue on COVID-19 covering such subjects has already been produced by the Journal of Science Communication and no doubt more publications are on the way. However, as the pandemic still impacts all around us, with different regions and countries continuing to adapt to rising rates, fluctuations in data, nudges and regulations around social behaviours and responsibilities, as well as the extended social, economic, moral and political implications of the first global pandemic in generations, there remains a space in the literature for manuscripts not only focussed on COVID-19 but a wide range of contemporary science communication issues.

Contemporary Issues in Science Communication seeks to offer such a space. Publications in this peer-reviewed book series will cover a range of topics relevant to contemporary science communication, including, but not limited to disciplinary insights, science communication mechanisms and techniques and inclusivity in science communication. Proposals can be focussed on specific science, health, environmental and other research subjects, provided the core theme is science communication or engagement related.

As COVID-19 continues to be a pressing matter in 2020, as well as responses to Black Lives Matters, and ongoing political elections, this may not be an easy time for authors to consider proposals in this area. Nevertheless, in providing a book series such as this it is hoped there will be opportunities for longitudinal considerations of the role of science communication within such societal issues, increasing not only the breadth and depth of accounts in science communication, but also opening up such spaces to a wider range of academics, disciplines and authors. Science communication has, after all, never been more public.

Clare Wilkinson is an Associate Professor and Co-Director, Science Communication Unit, University of the West of England Bristol and editor of the Contemporary Issues in Science Communication Series at Bristol University Press.


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