The 12th International Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference “Quality, Honesty and Beauty” was held at the Palazzo dei Congressi, Florence, Italy, 18-20 April, 2012.
Birthplace of the Renaissance and one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Florence provided a fitting backdrop to the six hundred plus participants who attended this well established biennial conference series.
Felice Frankel (MIT) spoke on “Seeing, representing, understanding”. She made the point that communication is about engendering understanding of science through representations. Metaphors, both verbal and visual, can be used as teaching tools in engagement with the public.
Massimiano Bucchi (University of Trento) started his talk “Good, clean and fair: The Slow PCST manifesto” with a question: “Why care about quality?” He was referring to the difficulty of evaluating science communication and made an impassioned plea for science communicators to concentrate and savour the quality rather than the quantity of science communication with the public, in much the same way as the “slow food” movement concentrates on good, clean and fair food.
There were a number of parallel sessions at the conference, some of which were as follows:
Does PCST Belong in the University? – This roundtable discussion addressed the status of PCST and its identity as a tertiary discipline.
Brian Tench (Dublin City University) questioned where PCST belonged as it involves a meeting of minds from different disciplines.
Suzanne de Cheveigné (CNRS, France) highlighted the need for researchers in PCST to be competent in at least one of a number of areas such as, sociology, history, humanities, linguistics, politics, anthropology and, of course, science.
Bruce Lewenstein (Cornell University) accentuated the value of PCST but argued that it would never be an academic discipline in its own right.
Climate and Environment – This session focused on the public’s reaction and engagement with the climate and environment debate.
Bienvenido León (University of Navarra) reported on a project to study the coverage of climate change in the Spanish media. In spite of the importance of the topic he found that climate change issues were significantly under reported. Apart from political events like climate change summits, climate change had become a marginal topic for discussion.
Elaine McKewon (University of Technology, Sydney) was looking at climate change reporting in two Australian papers. She found that there was a strong political agenda on the issue, with the left wing taking climate change more seriously and the right wing resorting to personal attacks on scientists.
Claudia Nepote (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) gave an overview of the situation in Mexico. She found that contrary to the situation in Spain, a network of environmental journalists had been formed in 2004, with stories appearing in the press on a wide range of issues including conservation and biodiversity.
Robin Pierce (Delft University of Technology) gave a talk on empowering the public to ask relevant questions by setting out the ethical issues in a balanced way. She used the example of biofuels, which started out as a food versus fuel debate, but which now involved non-food crops.
The Role of the Humanities in Science Communication: Epistemology, Aesthetics, Axiology – This session picked up the themes of the conference: epistemology (truth), aesthetics (beauty) and axiology (quality).
Joan Leach (University of Queensland) spoke about the importance of having a range of values in science communication. Clarity and accuracy on their own were not enough, there also had to be aesthetics.
Picking up the point about aesthetics, Thomas Söderqvist (University of Copenhagen) contrasted sci-art with everyday aesthetics. Too much focus on the beautiful images of sci-art, according to Söderqvist, risked eclipsing the everyday imagery of science.
The journal Public Understanding of Science celebrated its twentieth anniversary, having been set up at the first PCST conference, and the present and previous editors shared their thoughts on the past, present and future of PCST publishing.
John Durant (MIT) described PCST as a problem driven field occupying the interfaces between media studies and sociology of science. Bruce Lewenstein (Cornell University) questioned the importance of different models of science communication. Edna Einsiedel (University of Calgary) focused on the different sorts of “Public” in PCST and Martin Bauer (LSE), the present editor of the journal, described his vision for the future of PCST, which was to awaken wider public needs. He also reminded delegates of the perennial issue that good intentions often had unintended consequences.
Over the last twenty years science communication has evolved into an important field. There is also a growing realization that communication is going round full circle - from scientists to other scientists and the public; and then from the public and interested parties to scientists. Thus, scientific research becomes part of the grand cultural debate which shapes society.
I have only touched on a small cross section of the many speakers at this conference and I apologise to all those I was not able to include in this brief report.