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Challenging social exclusion in science communication

By Emily Dawson

A fundamental problem lies at the heart of science communication. For a project that claims to have roots in participatory democracy surprisingly little attention has been paid to issues of power and structural inequality. This omission is particularly awful given we have long known that those science communication activities high profile enough to count audiences, visitors or participants repeatedly find they are used by White, middle-class, urban groups in the UK, US and Europe (see for example Ipsos MORI 2014 and Dawson 2014). Working with five low-income, minority-ethnic groups in the UK, I explored whose values, knowledges and practices are reproduced in science communication and what that meant for people who are marginalised as a result.

Photograph of a bust of a White, male scientist in the Berlin Natural History Museum, Germany

I first met Abdou in the Macdonalds in Brixton, South London and over the next two years he became what ethnographers call a ‘key informant’ in my research with a local Sierra Leonean community (all participants’ names have been changed and the photographs here are not from my research sites). These participants formed one of five London based community groups involved in this research (including an Asian group, a Latin American group, an Afro-Caribbean group and a Somali group). During that first meeting Abdou laughed at my questions about science communication, insisting that, whether it was part of culture, education or politics, it was not for him.

What I went on to find in the study does not make for light-hearted or comforting reading for those invested in science communication. I found that racist, classed and sexist assumptions shape science communication publics and practices. Participants felt that science communication was by and large irrelevant and inaccessible to themselves and their communities on the basis of who they were, as low-income, minority ethnic people.

More alarmingly, where participants had experiences of science communication, these were marked by racism, class and/or sexism in ways that left them feeling ‘Othered’ and powerless as a result. For instance, participants criticised White saviour narratives about medicine and illness in Africa. They noted how ‘race’/ethnicity and gender played out to their disadvantage in whose stories are told and whose are erased in science communication.

Photograph of exhibit text at the South African Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. 

Overall, participants’ saw themselves as excluded from science communication. The institutional whiteness and middle-class norms of science communication worked to exclude the research participants, despite a thin veneer of accessibility and a notional sense of ‘science for all’. In the words of Connie from the Afro-Caribbean community group: “everyone thinks the door is open, but it’s not really, and that’s probably because the people in charge are quite comfortable and don’t want criticism or to have to change”.

Connie’s experiences represent a serious challenge for science communication, one that I believe we must embrace. In using theories of social justice (from political philosophy), social reproduction (from sociology) and cultural participation (from cultural studies) in this study I have tried to pull issues of structural inequalities into focus. To me, it seems crucial that we develop a better understanding of how practices like science communication reproduce and exacerbate existing patterns of privilege and marginalisation, and of course there is a lot more we need to understand.

What I took from my research was this: by reproducing socially dominant norms and practices, science communication can be seen as a technology of power, providing resources for some at the expense of others. I think we can do better.

For practitioners inclusive science communication is not as easy as just getting more people through the door. Inviting people from marginalised groups into spaces that uncritically reflect dominant practices of Whiteness, class and gender privilege, without transforming these practices, is clearly not good enough. And that’s before we get started on issues of sexuality, ability/disability or other structural inequalities, let alone how they mix together or overlap.

So the next time you are involved in planning a science communication activity, whether as a practitioner, researcher or funder, think twice about how to pay attention to multiple voices, spaces and publics and how to challenge rather than reproduce inequalities.

Read the full article: ‘Reimagining publics and (non)participation: Exploring exclusion from science communication through the experiences of low-income, minority ethnic groups’ doi/full/10.1177/0963662517750072

Emily Dawson is a Lecturer in Science Communication at University College London. Her research focuses on how people engage with and learn about science, with an emphasis on equity and social justice. Emily is working on a website that she will likely never finish, but her papers, blog posts and podcasts can be found here and you can follow her on twitter @emilyadawson