News from the last three weeks has been bad, to say the least. Both Britain and America have seemingly been bent on destruction and bridge-burning. Yet despite being anxious about just what will happen next, I’m also a little bit curious as well.
One of the few good parts about the previous three weeks is how people have often responded to protect and support others. Social networks have shared resources for contacting politicians, lawyers and advocates, and advice on how best to do so. Widespread protests and calls for mobilisation have made some meaningful changes, called attention to the wrongs which would have remained away from the spotlights, and delayed political decisions. People aren’t taking the changes as quietly as either Trump and co. or May and co. had wanted. And I hope this atmosphere of fighting back will continue, and lead to bigger changes.
My curiosity comes partly from wondering how science communication communities will respond to current events, especially decisions which affect people other than scientists.
For example, journalists are facing risk from a proposed (currently in consultation) Espionage Act, which would increase convictions and imprisonment for people who publish or republish leaked information (http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/protection-of-official-data/). Given that future political decisions may restrict available information to the point where necessary information has to be leaked, acceptance or permission for this Act will have strong repercussions for sharing information.
Scientists and journalists don’t always have the best relationship. For example, discussing the issues with science news reporting can often devolve into arguing that either “scientists don’t know how to communicate” or “journalists hype everything without understanding the context”. But in this situation, scientists can be (and need to be) strong allies for journalists. Both are ultimately focused on informing the public about the state of the world, so both need each other. Journalists can’t report on research that’s prevented from taking place or on information which is limited by gag clauses, while the most groundbreaking or helpful science in the world won’t be accessible if no-one can spread the word about it.
The biggest example, however, is for publics in general. Based on these three weeks, it seems like future political and economic decisions will be obscured rather than transparent, and will probably be introduced with unclear or misleading promises about their effect on people. There need to be people who can predict the real-world effects of political and economic decisions upon publics, and who can communicate the likely results of those decisions. For the first point, scientists do have the ability to study, predict, and inform. However, their knowledge and results don’t get communicated appropriately and effectively: worse, many of the factors influencing this information gap have been ticking along unchecked for years.
Another reason for my curiosity is wondering whether the current way the world is working is so unexpected that it could rattle and mobilise even academia. Could this year be the crisis situation needed to bring institutions, funders, and academic publishers down to earth and into the public?
Image from USA Today.