In a series of blog posts we will be introducing the keynote speakers and talks for PCST 2020 Conference in Aberdeen. Our second profile is of Professor Mike S. Schäfer who holds a chair for science communication at the University of Zürich. His research focuses on public debates and media coverage around science-related issues. For topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, nuclear energy, particle physics and others, he has analyzed how stakeholders try to position themselves publicly, how journalists select and present them, how users come in contact with science and the effects that this communication has - from knowledge acquisition over attitudinal and behavioural change all the way to trust in science, scientific institutions and individual scientists.


In recent years, Mike has focused on online and social media communication and questions of fragmentation and polarization of online public spheres around science, the prevalence and impact of social bots and the diffusion of information.


Science publics in the digital public sphere


In reference to the PCST 2020 conference theme, Technology, Mike will address how contemporary media technologies have reshaped the public sphere and, with it, the publics for science.


We spoke to Mike and asked him a few questions about his thoughts on the communication of science and technology and the conference itself!

Why are you interested in the public communication of science and technology?

From the invention of the telephone over nuclear energy to AI – science and technology have always been transformative forces in society. And it’s beneficial for everybody if this transformative potential is realized in a good way. Because if science is done right – and I am fully aware that we currently have some systemic incentives in science which are detrimental – science is a great way to address some of society’s most pressing questions.

To fully realize its potential, however, I am convinced that science needs a continuous, open and two-way dialogue with society. It needs public communication in all its formats, from journalism over open days to interpersonal communication. And we as scholars of science communication need to monitor and analyse this public communication, and to make sure we have enough evidence to see where true dialogue is actually happening, what kinds of impact it has both on science and society, and how it can be improved. If we don’t use the scientific method to improve science communication, how can we expect anybody else to use science in other fields?


Can you describe a particular moment or experience that has defined your connection with the public communication of science and technology? (personal or historical)

What first piqued my interest was communication about human biotechnology in the early 2000s: Scientists were talking about the potential to analyse the entire human DNA, to “map” it, to improve our understanding of the genetic causes for many illnesses. Promises were made to cure diseases including, of course, cancer.

I was fascinated by these advances, but as a social scientist, my analytical interest was also triggered. People were “selling science”, as Dorothy Nelkin once put it, and I was interested in the best salesmen and saleswomen. Who was most successful in promoting his or her arguments in public? And what role did the ethical and social implications of human biotech play, issues of potential discrimination and privacy concerns?

During this research, I got hooked on science communication and started analysing other fields, like climate science.


How do you think the public communication of science and technology might or should change in the future?

On the one hand, I expect several trends that we can observe already to continue, and maybe even accelerate: the erosion of science journalism; the professionalization of organizational communication about science, including from scientific institutions; the segmentation and potential fragmentation of audiences; but also the increased freedoms of citizen to choose their own media diets.  

On the other hand, technology itself will certainly play a much larger role in public communication about S&T (science and technology) – and about all others issues as well. Avatars, chatbots and social bots, virtual and augmented reality. A lot of communication, both public and interpersonal, is mediated already, via Smartphones, platforms, messenger apps etc. But this will surely increase and fundamentally reshape communication in the process.


Have you ever visited Scotland before? What are you most excited to see or do?

I actually haven’t visited Scotland before, so I look forward to coming to Aberdeen. I’m keen to go hiking in the Highlands if I can, check out a castle or two and maybe sample some Scotch somewhere.  

Follow us for updates @PCST_Network , and registration for the conference is currently open.