Over the last week space science got a lot of publicity thanks to Rosetta and its sidekick Philae. ESAs successful attempt to land a spacecraft on a comet was all over the news. Apart from the news coverage, which the mission got thanks to the landing, you could and can follow Rosetta on Twitter or on the Rosetta blog, ESA is providing detailed information about the mission on their website and last but not least the use of videos explaining Rosettas mission and the ingenious short-movie Ambition got a lot of people excited about the mission. A pathetic hysteria raging over a scientists sense of fashion aside, it was an excellent example for science communication well-done. Or was it?
I followed the discussion of the mission in the comments on a German news website. As some people were nagging about the not so perfect landing, someone remarked that the mission is now going on for ten years, and in this time has provided a lot of data and insights and therefore the mission was already a success even before Philae attempted its landing. This was one of the comments1 that followed:
“The discussion here underpins my critique that we don`t get sensible information from the people in charge and the scientists about the actual results. We all have to speculate. After ten years that is a bit weird, if there really are already that many results. Not only Philae is in stand-by, apparently science as well. It is time that science comes down from the ivory tower and explains to us pity layman why this mission is so important and what insights it has really provided.” 2
Now, don`t get me wrong, I will not write a blog post every time I read an ignorant comment3 somewhere in the internet4. In this case it just wonderfully displays a dilemma I see for science communication and it has a connection to an “en vogue” topic, so I couldn`t resist.
But first, why do I think this comment is ignorant?
Well, the essence of the comment is that ESA is not communicating why the mission is important and what it has already achieved. This ignores, that if you go to the website about Rosetta provided by ESA you will find plenty of information on these issues.
For example, you want to know why it is important to investigate comets, read the four-part series on the history of comets.
You want to know about what has been achieved? This article gives you the overview. And if that grasped your attention and you want to know more, you can, amongst other things, read about the flybys of the asteroids Steins and Lutetia.
And here we are in the middle of the dilemma:
On the one side we have a lot of science communication going on. On the other side we have the person at who it is aimed at, who nevertheless feels obviously not informed.
How can we bridge this gap?
Yes, in the first instance the responsibility lies within the field of science. Yes, scientists have to continuously work on their communication skills. Yes, scientists should use different media to distribute their message.
But we cannot bridge the gap completely from one side alone. No matter how much information scientists put out there and how nicely they wrap them up, they will unfortunately not always make the headlines. So how do we get science communicated in the cases when science doesn`t win the race to the top of the newspapers against wars, conflicts, politics and Kim Kardashians backside?
I think the answer might lie in the term itself:
“Science communication” – that`s two words.
While scientists have to do the “communication”, it requires the interested layman to do a little bit of “science”, namely looking up the communicated information and asses them.
The scientists in their respective fields can only build a bridge across the gap with the information they put out there. Sometimes (as in the case of Rosetta) it is a broad and stable stone bridge, sometimes it will only be a slippery rope bridge.
Either way, you`ll have to cross the bridge yourself.
1 Better: A translation of the comment that approximately reproduces the original meaning.
3 Note: “Ignorant” solely refers to the comment itself, not to the commentator.
4 I wouldn`t be able to do anything else