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Public Understanding of the Scientific Process

Our goal is to facilitate a development we call “Public Understanding of the Scientific Process” (PUSP). Science fiction dominated the communication of scientific facts in the 1950s. Skepticism emerged as scientific findings and technological advancements became more complex and powerful,  which spawned large-scale information campaigns. However, public understanding of research is not a matter of sufficient knowledge through comprehensive explanation (a so called „deficit model“), but rather driven by personal concern and interests as a result of emotions and individual involvement and a certain code of values. As a consequence, science communication started to enhance public understanding based on the concept of science and humanities (PUSH phase). This strategy, combining scientific knowledge with the information needs of people, effectively constituted the understanding of scientific research within the public. Nevertheless, many scientists are not aware about it and thus, a large amount of dissemination activities and communication efforts often are still based on a scientist's monologue on facts. On the other hand, most of the people “consuming” science communication know little to nothing about how scientific research happens. Hence, even if they understand based on acquired knowledge, their view of science is generally biased by their imagination of how science happens.

Science communication as a fair process

The uncertainty of findings is a key concept of science. Yet, uncertainty of scientific findings is one of the main drivers for public misunderstanding, distrust and subsequent lack of interest or even opposition. To understand why certain results are vague, clear findings are scarce, or several aspects remain uncertain, people must have the opportunity to look behind-the-scenes of scientific research. The fairness theory postulates that transparency of a process increases willingness to accept its outcome. Using this approach would be a measure of informational justice, providing access to appropriate information and offering a transparent process, instead of simply reporting results. It has been shown that people can better accept a negative outcome when they feel they know how a decision was made. In public perception, scientific uncertainty has a quality similar to that of a decision's negative outcome, since common expectations – as detailed above –demand clarity. The conclusion is that the public needs to directly participate in the scientific process.

Theatre-based communication

Theater-based communication is a novel concept that can be applied as a way to let the public see behind-the-scenes. A similar approach in legislation, the “legislative theatre”, has proven to be a  successful and suitable way to attain democratic decision making according to the fairness theory.  Involving scientists as actors, playing the role of their everyday working life, with all difficulties, decisions, discussions and especially failures, could bring on stage the reality of research, and correct the media-biased image of scientific research in the public. This realistic view will create more accessible research and more approachable researchers in the environmental sciences. There are a variety of choices for this type of communication, ranging from open days and science nights, science slams, public lectures and video blogs to articles in popular journals and TV or newspaper interviews.

Start-of-pipe with the young

We will also put one strong focus on communicating to the younger part of the society in terms of a start-of-pipe approach. Educating already the young generations to take care of their environment and to consider anthropogenic contamination can significantly reduce diffuse pollution in future, thus enhancing environmental quality. Concepts and strategies for activities especially aimed at schools will be developed in close cooperation with local teachers and pupils, thus taking into account differences between regions and countries. In the interest for a long-term awareness of the society about environmental issues and the science taking care of them, the communication and education should start already with the children, who are particularly interested, curious, easily fascinated and eager to learn.