Science Communication in archaeology. In the last couple of weeks this topic seems to have gained a lot of attention in Germany, fuelled by the “11th forum on science communication”, which took place in Bonn beginning of November. I don’t feel entirely qualified to blog about this topic, but…
…well, I am a consumer of #sciencecomm / #sciecomm just as everyone else. And a scientist as well. And we just had a conference that was on Communicating the Past. And I noticed it is a topic that seems to be much more talked about in anglophone archaeology than in German one (as in other sciences…). Therefore this blogpost will be in posted in German as well.
So what do I consider to be science communication?
It is an act of communicating research results, methods and theoretical foundations on an understandable niveau to people outside of the scientific discipline. Connected are public outreach, public archaeology and similar terms.
Who in the scientific community does it?
- (state-owned) museums (one of their core functions: creating long and short term exhibitions and the catalogues)
- (state-owned) universities (quite often as a way to promote their scientific output and to gain standing)
- research groups
- individual researcher
Via which media?
There are popular books and science magazines, museum exhibitions, their catalogues, hiking guides, signs, … as well as TV-shows.
These formats are quite often a “one-way” route, if e. g. the book / TV-show / magazine gets written, published and read, but no further contact between the scientist and the audience exhists. In my opinion much more engaging is the two-way route of the web2.0-revolution: an interaction between researcher and audience usually communicated via social media. This is still a hotly debated topic, whether researchers should engage with the public in such a way. Some people believe it is impossible to do research and science communication at the same time and that the “essence of science simply does not mix with presuppositionless popularity” (original: “Auf der anderen Seite verträgt sich voraussetzungslose Allgemeinverständlichkeit nun einmal nicht mit dem Wesen von Wissenschaft” ). But I am not alone in disagreeing: Jan Steffen, Jens Notroff and Oliver Dietrich (two German blog posts), Elizabeth Reetz (great presentations), Alison Melville , and many others say that we need to communicate with the public.
There are many reasons for it
- Ethical ones:
- Researchers receive money from the tax payers, so… the tax payer should get something in return, right?
- History and archaeology inform us about our shared human heritage. Everyone should be able to learn about their past: You empower other people by sharing your knowledge.
- People are interested!
- By educating people they may help combat looting, illicit traficking and similar.
- “Political” ones on an instutational level
- if nobody knows what you are doing, why should anyone support you if you need more time to dig a site / more money for a research question / a legislation to be passed in the favour of heritage?
- if you do not tell the story of your scientific discipline, somebody else will. And they might mention aliens, mysteries and the “forgotten knowledge of the ancients” – which are, as you know, bogus.
- if you do not engage with the public, you cannot answer all the racist, sexist or plainly idiotic claims you might find on social media… or on the history channel.
- If you want students, you might want to tell them your discipline exhists and does cool things (Time Team may be responsible for an increase in British university archaeology applications? ).
- Actually… it is trendy right now and you might get a grant, if you include science communication in your application (I heard)
- “Personally political ones”
- well… if you want to get famous… or just develop better chances of getting a job. Become google-able. Create networks out of your discipline. If I read about you in a newspaper, I will assume you are an expert in the discipline.
I agree science communication is not easy.
We don’t really learn it, when we study a discipline. We learn to write scientifically, not understandably (very bad German tradition here). Explaining difficult and complex topics in an easy language is hard. It takes time. Writing a blog post takes time, answering a question on twitter takes time and also, it might be repetitive to always answer the same questions (though hey, the person asking is interested. It is not his / her fault that she doesn’t know. And isn’t it great that s/he wants to know something?). Some people may simply not be the right person to do it (and everyone agrees that you shouldn’t do it, if you don’t think you could have fun doing it). You might get annoyed too fast (and then, please don’t try to engage with people asking questions, they don’t deserve to be treated badly for not knowing), you might simply not want to reduce your time researching.
And at the moment the scientific recognition for it is low. Time wasted, some may think. Also, if we want to do it really well, we need to think about whom we are addressing. Do I create content for school children here? Is it for elderly people? Maybe I am aiming at people without an academic background? What medium would be the best one? Is creating a cartoon the right idea? What is the most important content I want people to grasp? Is it better to produce a snappy headline and have people notice what I write or should I stay conservative and correct? Simply starting on twitter at first just leads to other scientists following you and only after some time you might attract followers outside your discipline, a study found. Even then, how do you write there? A very interesting blog post revealed how by style of writing on twitter scientists might exclude non-professionals, even students in their own field.
So, I do recognize science communication is neither easy nor is it a shallow pasttime, to be done in your lunch break only.
But you know what?
There exist professionals in science communication. These people know how to break difficult content down into understandable bits, they are aware of communication strategies for different age groups, they have all sorts of visual techniques at their hands, which I, simple archaeologist that I am, may not have thought of. A friend of mine studies science illustration in Hamburg. She was at the conference in Bonn and came back slightly shell shocked: “These guys didn’t know we existed!” Most of the people at the conference were scientists and though the projects presented were cool, she did notice a lack of reflection in the methods applied.
So in the end, what do I want to say?
Tl;dr: Science communication is important. People who engage with it, should be recognised for the service they are doing our discipline. If a person is misinformed and starts believing wild alien theories this is in part also a failing of archaeology and history as scientific disciplines, because they do not communicate their methods and results adequately. If you don’t think you can do it justice yourself, but recognise the importance of communicating, think about engaging a professional. Write it into your grant application. Grant givers: Ask for it. Employers: Pay for it.
So, what channels of science communication do I follow?
- @SarahEBond (who also gives interesting insights about her outreach here)
- … some more…
- facebook groups
- Archäologie in Deutschland
- Archaeology Institute UHI
- Miss Jones https://www.miss-jones.de/
- Archäologik https://archaeologik.blogspot.com/
- Archäologieblog http://archaeologieblog.de/
Is my own channel a good one? Probably not, because I’m just blathering my thoughts out into the world and don’t reflect too much on target groups. But I do try to write without too many technical terms. So, you tell me: Is it?