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Science communication units in universities

The growth in importance of the 'third mission of universities has given rise to the creation of dedicated units. Watch Prof. Cales explain more.
I have been director of the Scientific Culture Unit of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and actually, the units of scientific culture are small communication cabinets very focused on the communication of science, on technology and on the innovation of a university. And when I talk about science I’m referring to experimental sciences and social sciences and sciences which deal with other non-experimental aspects, with the Humanities. Because all this is what makes up the body of scientific knowledge.
They have the purpose of fulfilling this third mission which appears in universities in the second half of the 20th century, in the end of the twentieth century, initially in the United Kingdom, and then it actually spreads to the rest of the world, specifically, to Europe. Practically, it shows up as a necessity and as one of the most important substrates of the university activity.
This need has to come from the University and it is not so much from the university as from the scientist, from the academic, from that person who is able to know in depth the meaning, the transcendence, the profit that will mean for society this increase of knowledge of that who evidently does not do science, who is not a scientist, who works in other sectors. Inside culture as we understand it, the general culture, of History, of the environment that surrounds us,
anyway, the basic tools: writing, language, mathematics. Scientific discoveries and scientific evidence also have to be part of this culture. And not only to increase the individual culture level.
Because one question that we scientists ask ourselves is: Why do I have to disseminate? I, that I know so well the phenomenon that I’m studying, why now do I have to communicate it in a simple language, simplifying the concepts? Why do I have to digest this knowledge, which is always complex, so that a person could just be more cultured? And it is here where I think we should reflect.
Sometimes, the problem with ignorance, with scientific ignorance, with the knowledge of the pseudo-sciences or the acquisition of beliefs through pseudo-sciences much more than through knowledge and scientific facts, through the very same scientists, has an effect at the social level. And I am going to illustrate it with some examples.
For instance:
the ignorance about how antibiotics work.
Of course it has an effect on the individual himself: if one person consumes antibiotics in a wrong and continued way, completely anarchic, just because this person has a cold which is caused, for example, by a virus and not by a bacterium, therefore, the antibiotic will not have any effect on the course of this little disease. Evidently, this person could develop resistance to antibiotics and is going to have in his/her body bacteria resistant to those antibiotics. If those bacteria, for instance, at one point are allowed to thrive by the immune system, what is going to happen is that this person won’t be able to fight that bacterial infection because his/her bacteria will have got resistant to antibiotics.
But of course, this resistance to antibiotics doesn’t affect just one person. It begins to affect all the people around this individual. Resistance to antibiotics has become a social problem, a global problem, and this is due to the improper use of antibiotics. So, every person should know these basic principles. Another paradigmatic example is that of vaccines. We are living a boom of diseases which had been eradicated. The anti-vaccines movements are extremely powerful and they aren’t based on scientific evidence but on circumstantial evidence. This, at best, because they are usually based on beliefs, on simply opinions. The scientist does not opine. The scientist has or does not have evidence. And the scientist’s evidence follow strict standards.
These anti-vaccines beliefs make some people decide not to vaccinate their children. This has effects on that children. We could think, it is a problem of individual ignorance, and therefore we don’t have to do something. However, this individual ignorance, this success of the pseudo-science against science has now a social impact. That is because this kids can get diseases, they can spread them to other children which are still not vaccinated, even though their parents want to do it.
We also have to listen to the population reluctance towards scientific knowledge. We are aware, there are frauds. There are scientists which commit frauds, and of course, this is also reflected in the media, so science is not free from guilt either. However, it is an obligation of the scientist and of the scientific institutions to try to increase, precisely, all that knowledge and make it more accessible. The universities or academic institutions where that knowledge of science is generated and treasured, should facilitate the work of the scientists by bringing their knowledge, their discoveries and the transcendence of those to society.
Not only supporting its diffusion but also with the presence of specialized staff, professionals who know what they are talking about, who have a scientific and academic training and could be mediators of this divulgation, of this communication from the hard core of knowledge, which is scientific research, to society. Not only to society in general but to certain and very specific populations as the youth, as the children. About this specialization of some people, I consider that is going to grow in importance with time. Also because now is important for the scientist him/herself to know how to divulge.
Even in the most specific journals, they require you now the writing of a divulgation summary on this scientific knowledge. Not a scientific summary, but a divulgation summary. So, the need to divulge also reaches these levels and, hence, I believe it’s very necessary that the scientist, especially in its training stage, becomes very aware that divulgation it’s going to be another attribute that will be required of him/her. However, he/she is going to be able to divulge with great satisfaction because whenever one is able to explain what he/she has discovered to another person who does not have that scientific knowledge, I think it also causes a great satisfaction.

Many universities created science communication and public engagement units

They work as an intermediary between the researchers and the rest of society: they create occasions of scientific communication and dialogue between academia and the public audience, they train researchers in the art of science communication and they form networks that could improve the effectiveness of these initiatives.

In the next video, we will continue exploring the roles that science communication and public engagement units have.

Your view

Here we would ask you to think about a topic mentioned by prof Calés:

  • Can institutional communication defend science effectively against fraud and hoaxes?
  • Are universities and research centers always seen as unbiased and impartial?

Share your comments with us!

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Science Communication and Public Engagement

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