Skip to main content

Networking to grow science communication as a field of teaching

by Dr Marina Joubert & Dr Luisa Massarani

A global network of science communication teachers could advance the quality of Master’s and PhD teaching in the field by creating an essential core curriculum and facilitating the meaningful sharing of course materials. Cross-country exchange programmes (online or face-to-face) could add significant value for students and lead to long-term research collaborations.

These were some of the conclusions from a June 2020 webinar on this topic which attracted more than 100 participants. With many universities and scientific institutions around the globe starting up new Master’s and PhD programmes in science communication, it is not surprising that teachers in the field are keen to network with colleagues from other organisations. Following this webinar, a formal proposal was submitted to the PCST Network to form a community of interest (in science communication teaching) under the PCST umbrella.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, science communication has expanded and matured as a field of practice and research, coupled with a significant growth in the global number of graduate courses, especially Master’s programmes, in the field of science communication. 
From these historical reflections, it is clear that science communication is evolving as a field of teaching, presenting teachers with the challenge of integrating new topics into their curricula, while maintaining a solid base of core science communication principles and theory and finding ways to bridge theory and practice.

As chair of the June 2020 webinar, Professor Joan Leach touched on the importance of quality standards and ethics in the teaching of science communication, and what the relevant baselines, benchmarks, indicators and review practices might be. 
  • Dr Melanie Smallman shared lessons learned from the European Network of Science Communication Teachers (ENSCOT). 
  • Dr Frans van Dam presented recent research at Utrecht University showing that many lecturers in the field are interested in joining a teachers’ network. 
  • From a presentation by Dr Elizabeth Stevenson on the business model for MSc programmes in science communication at the University of Edinburgh, it was clear that, in some countries and/or institutions, the sharing of course materials may be complicated by issues of ownership and copyright. 
  • Dr Luisa Massarani and Dr Marina Joubert presented views from Latin America and South Africa respectively, with an emphasis on the potential value of a network in science communication teaching at Master and PhD level.
As expected, the issue of variety and diversity in course content and audiences surfaced. One of the key questions was: “Who are the audiences for science communication at Master and PhD level? Are we preparing people for a career in science communication practice? Are we nurturing future scholars? Or, are we catering for scientists who are interested to become involved in public communication as a part of their research careers? If different courses have different audiences (and objectives), could we do a better job of making these specialisations clear to prospective students? 
Clearly, for example, there is a significant difference in a Master’s programme focused on producing science documentaries vs one specialising in science policy matters or informal science learning. It was clear from past and current students that they would appreciate a better understanding of the best universities to enrol at for different specialisation options in science communication studies.

Of course, academic programmes in the field of science communication depend on their cultural contexts and will be influenced by the host countries and institutions. However, the students who enrol for these courses are increasingly “international” and more interested in diverse perspectives. Therefore, there is a growing need for teachers to share ideas around inclusivity and diversity in science communication, including topics such as intercultural communication, communication of indigenous knowledge systems and the need to decolonize curricula.

Another point of debate was the need to differentiate between teaching science communication aimed at advancing and promoting science, vs equipping students to have a critical and reflective perspective on the relationship between science and society. The same kind of tension has been mentioned in the science journalism society, who often view science communicators as “cheerleaders” for science.

In general, there was widespread support for the idea of establishing a network of science communication teachers where participants could share ideas (and even lesson plans) and discuss shared challenges. The enthusiasm shared by the participants stimulated us to take a step forward by creating a working group consisting of (in alphabetical order): Liesbeth de Bakker, Marina Joubert, Joan Leach, Luisa Massarani, Michelle Riedlinger, Melanie Smallman, Elizabeth Stevenson, Frans van Dam.

Read also Equipping scientists with the skills to engage public audiences by Marina Joubert & Luisa Massarani