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Final RETHINK & TRESCA policy event

To rebuild public trust in science, we need to take a look in the mirror

By Michael Creek and Morgane Taillandier

In the current climate of information overload, polarisation and misinformation, policymakers face huge challenges in ensuring science is trustworthy and transparent. This was the theme of a recent online conference co-hosted by EU-funded projects RETHINK and TRESCA.

Policymakers, researchers and science communicators from across Europe came together to discuss the key role that policy plays in ensuring public trust in science. After a first day of discussing the role of connections with new audiences and social media, the second day of the event began with a rousing call to action on how science communication must be transformed.

“We only seem to address the challenge of public trust when there is a crisis,” stated keynote speaker Dr. Elizabeth Rasekoala, President of African Gong, the Pan-African Network for the Popularisation of Science & Technology and Science Communication. “We need to move from this state to a different paradigm.”

For Dr Rasekoala, the first move is the “delivery of science communication within a social justice agenda”. This agenda is necessary to engender the growth of democratic societies able to deal with challenges and issues of science and its manifestation in our everyday lives. What does this mean in practice? “Science communicators need to move away from being ambassadors for science to becoming critical friends of science in their engagement with the public.”

Inclusion was a key area Dr Rasekoala highlighted as in need of work. Scientists and science communicators find it very difficult to engage beyond their comfort zones. “How can we build trust with the public when we only engage with those sections of the public that are already enrolled, that we are comfortable with? “You cannot tell me that I am included. I have to tell you that I am included.” In her eyes, we need to have the humility as a field to reflect on that together with those audiences that are currently excluded.

To make this happen, the policy dimension is critical. “Public trust can no longer be considered as a ‘nice to have’, but should be a sustainable outcome of our work.” This requires us to transform our approaches, mindset and motivations: “The real prize will only be achieved when we considerably and intentionally move from a crisis-driven approach to enhancing public trust to a fully embedded framework, through transformational and reflective practices.”

Transformation and reflection

Responding to this clear call to action, Tessa Roedema of VU Amsterdam drew on her research as part of the RETHINK project to provide insight as to how science communicators can implement reflective practice: “Find that common ground in order to become that critical friend, and don’t try to engage yourself in a conflict of discussing facts. Look for common ground, and take that as an entry point in a conversation. But that only happens when you reflect on what your value is.”

Another perspective came from Joseph Roche of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, whose project GlobalSCAPE questions the role of science communication from an international angle and uses novel tools with its participants. “The way we are using reflective practice as a method is rather than doing a survey, we ask people to keep a reflective journal, a diary. That can be beneficial for individuals, but we are interested to see what happens when you compare that across countries, regions, and see how that changes over time.”

Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu, Italy, felt strongly that most science journalists tend to try too hard to be ambassadors of science rather than critical friends. “Often science journalism feels left out, that their work does not relate to political or economic interests: they tend to focus more on the science.” But this she sees as a weakness. “Society is composed of all of these. We need to have all of these approaches.”

As a network of science engagement institutions, Ecsite has a role to play in how this transformation can be embedded at institutional level. Executive Director Catherine Franche highlighted the strengths of science centres and museums as professional, locally rooted, reliable institutions with a convening power to bring stakeholders together: “People don’t necessarily mistrust science, but the system of science. Who does the research? What are the interests behind it? In other words, we’re talking about power.”

What role for policy?

Pamela Bartar of ZSI, Austria, introduced the policy briefs of the RETHINK and TRESCA projects which open up mechanisms and dialogue with key policy stakeholders to bring about systemic change.

Birte Fähnrich of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research welcomed the policy briefs. “They are useful to get new insights and ideas for policy making, or for countries who are already a bit further in the development, to confirm that politics are on the right track.” She highlighted a number of recommendations in particular, including the importance of supporting the development of science communication competences and research, as well as networking and coordination.

The TRESCA project highlighted how policy can shape the type of science communication practice that is carried out in Europe, as Gabor Szüdi of ZSI explained: “One of the most important recommendations in this policy brief was about the trend of using more and more visual and digitalised solutions that make it more possible to create easily accessible science communication content and involving the public.”

Peter Hylgard of the Danish Board of Technology underlined that the policy briefs took a holistic approach: “When we talk about the relation between science and policy makers, we often talk about how science can put the knowledge into policy, and the policy makers can act. In RETHINK, we zoomed out.” The result is a set of overarching policy recommendations that can be implemented across sectors.