In communicating science, Europe envies the U.S.

From the August 16, 2008 issue of Science News

On July 21, at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona, members of the European astronomy community participated in a discussion about why their space program has failed to engage public interest in a manner comparable to programs in the United States.

Organized by Dirk Lorenzen, a physicist turned journalist for German public radio, the session was titled “Reaching for the Stars: Research in Heaven, Communication in Hell.” Lorenzen, a longtime reporter on space science and technology, began by pointing out that the public, both in Europe and elsewhere, knows little of the work of ESA, the European Space Agency. Yet NASA is known globally. Lorenzen blamed the overall attitude of European scientists, saying that most of them “don’t regard scientific communication as important.”

As an example, he pointed out that NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has generated hundreds of gorgeous photos from throughout the cosmos. The images are readily available on its website and can be downloaded without charge. By contrast, he said, ESA’s powerful telescopes made only four Hubble-like space images available in the last year. Furthermore, journalists seeking to use ESA images must wait for official approval, which has sometimes been given only after a publication deadline has passed.

Lorenzen assembled a panel of three space science representatives to respond to these concerns. They were Claus Madsen, a foreign affairs officer for the European Southern Observatory; Rudolf Albrecht, of the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility; and Mark Kidger, a researcher and communications specialist for the European Space Astronomy Centre near Madrid. Excerpts follow:

Madsen: The criticism is well placed and deserves consideration. Journalists know NASA, not ESA. There is a European malaisewe are afraid of showing our success stories. There are really three main issues: of perceptions, culture and institutional structure. Scientists often believe that they don’t know how to talk to the media. But also they see it as beneath their intellectual level. I know one scientist who turned press officer. He called himself a failed scientist.

Institutionally, there is no career incentive to talk to the media. In a world of hypercommunicationInternet, cell phones, PDAsit’s strange that communication is so undervalued in science. Public communication is seen as a burdensomething we have to do. It’s not understood as what it should bea service investment. Most industries make a 5 to 10 percent investment in public communication of their work. In science it’s less than 1 percent.

And, yes, ESA has taken its kicks. But let’s not limit the problem to ESA. We aren’t the only scientists with this attitude. I do claim that this is changing, that the wind is blowing in the right direction. But we started from a very low point, so it is hard for people to tell.

Albrecht: Without belittling scientific papers, they tend to be the holy cause of science. We have to get them in; if not, careers can be terminated. And they disseminate and build knowledge in our community. But scientific papers only reach the immediate community; they hardly cross the scientific disciplines. We have to also digest the information for the public.

Why? The public is powerful. In the United States, the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission was canceled and astronomers were unhappy. If only astronomers were unhappy, the administration would not care. But all at once, there was a huge public outcry, and the mission was restored. You wouldn’t see that in Europe.

In the U.S., of course, such public influence can also be dangerous to science. The regulation of stem cells is an example. But we have to remember that the media can be the university of the general public. In an ever more complex society, it’s important for the public to be well informed. We want to avoid technophobiaif that develops, people will go in other directions like cults, astrology, they make strange decisions, they elect leaders … well, I think I won’t say anymore about that. But we should learn that the media can propagate rational concepts and thoughts.

Kidger: The attitude that’s prevalent in Europe is “don’t speak to himhe talks to journalists.” It’s changing, but slowly.

We need to be more confident about what we do. We work with Americans, collaborate, and the feeling is that we are lucky that NASA is willing to collaborate with us, not that we’re willing to let them collaborate. We need to let people know that ESA has an incredible space record.

Of course, one problem is that out of 100 scientists, maybe five or 10 can really talk well at a public level. Those ones are pretty damn good. But the other 90 percent are a dead loss.

But we should keep encouraging scientists to do it. Really, it shouldn’t be so hard. Scientists like to talk about what they’re doing. Once they start, it’s hard to get them to stop.

Deborah Blum, a freelance science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, provided this report from the meeting in Barcelona.