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The changing rationale of science communication: a challenge to scientific autonomy

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We argue that the institutionalized push communication of academic institutions has become the dominant form of public science communication and has tended to force other forms and functions of science communication into the background. Given the new schemes of public funding, public communication of science now primarily serves the purpose of enabling academic institutions to promote themselves in a competition that has been forced upon them by the political domain. What academics working under these conditions say about themselves and their work (and what they do not) will depend crucially on the strategic communication goals and concepts of the organizations to which they belong. We surmise that the inherent logic of this form of science communication represents a potential threat to the autonomy of scientific research.
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SISSA – International School for Advanced Studies Journal of Science Communication
ISSN 1824 – 2049 http://jcom.sissa.it/
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PUBLIC COMMUNICATION FROM RESEARCH INSTITUTES:IS IT SCIENCE
COMMUNICATION OR PUBLIC RELATIONS?
The changing rationale of science communication:
a challenge to scientific autonomy
Frank Marcinkowski and Matthias Kohring
ABS TR ACT:We argue that the institutionalized push communication of academic
institutions has become the dominant form of public science communication and
has tended to force other forms and functions of science communication into the
background. Given the new schemes of public funding, public communication
of science now primarily serves the purpose of enabling academic institutions
to promote themselves in a competition that has been forced upon them by the
political domain. What academics working under these conditions say about
themselves and their work (and what they do not) will depend crucially on the
strategic communication goals and concepts of the organizations to which they
belong. We surmise that the inherent logic of this form of science communication
represents a potential threat to the autonomy of scientific research.
We can understand the term science communication in its most general sense as each
instance of communication about scientific research which is addressed to a public, as
well as about the knowledge (technology) resulting from this [1]. Science communica-
tion is in fact a multifaceted phenomenon: it employs a variety of formats and channels
of communication, involves different actors, and pursues very different, even sometimes
conflicting, objectives. We can nonetheless use three distinctions to make some order of
the confusion. First, we should distinguish between individual and institutional commu-
nicators — that is, between an individual academic who reports on his or her research,
and the press office of an academic institution in which there are usually professional
communicators who provide information on the work of academics belonging to the in-
stitution. Second, we should distinguish between communication by science, and com-
munication about science. This distinction concerns the question of whether academics
or academic institutions provide self-descriptions of their own action, or whether external
observers (especially journalists) communicate their assessments of scientific processes
and findings, and place them in a social context. Third, we should make a distinction
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2 F. Marcinkowski and M. Kohring
between different modes of science communication, which are defined by the relation-
ship of communicators and recipients. In so-called push communication, the prerogative
lies with the communicator, who consciously and purposefully selects desired recipients
whose interest the communicator simply presupposes and whom the communicator ad-
dresses directly with its range of communications, i.e., s/he pushes the message. The
prime example here is the work of university press offices, which, automatically and usu-
ally without there being a particular demand, send out mailings to “their” distribution
lists. We distinguish this from so-called pull communication, where the communicator
makes his/her information available to an anonymous and dispersed public through ap-
propriate channels, which can then be selected and “pulled” on by recipients according
to their individual interests. Examples here are journal articles about science, but also,
for example, science blogs or wikis.
If we imagine these distinctions as axes of a three-dimensional matrix (Figure 1), then
what emerges is a space with eight blocks, each one representing a unique format of
science communication.
Figure 1. Facets and formats of science communication.
We argue here that the lower right square of the first level, i.e., the push communication
of academic institutions (usually executed by institutional press offices), has become the
dominant form of public science communication and has tended to force other forms and
functions of science communication into the background. Given the new schemes of pub-
lic funding, the public communication of science primarily serves the purpose of enabling
academic institutions to promote themselves in a competition that has been forced upon
them by the political domain. What academics working under these conditions say about
themselves and their work (and what they do not) will depend crucially on the strategic
communication goals and concepts of the organizations to which they belong. We surmise
that the inherent logic of this form of science communication represents a potential threat
to the autonomy of scientific research, with our argument being based on our studies of
the publicly funded system of higher education in Germany [2].
The changing rationale of science communication: a challenge to scientific autonomy 3
Is science a genuine public business?
The absolute requirement for science to present itself in public is now simply assumed
to be obvious and a matter of course. Those academics or academic institutions that try
to evade the ubiquitous pressure to communicate publicly come under huge pressure to
justify themselves. External communication of almost any kind and amount is considered
useful and desirable per se — indeed, it is often already understood as being a genuine
component of academic activity.
If we consider the process of scientific understanding from a functional point of view,
however, then the notion that science has to publish itself becomes by no means self-
explanatory or self-evident. The function of science is clearly to formulate sentences
which, assuming a certain understanding of truth and accepted methods, are considered
true and which can therefore be particularly useful in guiding human action. The epis-
temic process itself, the process of attributing truth values to statements, therefore re-
quires neither public visibility nor the sanction of an uninvolved third party. Whether a
statement is deemed true or false is determined within science, and usually within the
epistemic publics of scientific communities. There is no reason to assume that the pro-
cess of scientific understanding would be furthered by having as many people as possible
observing or being involved in procedures of justification. Science has had to fight for a
very long time for this functional autonomy — against the claims, for example, made by
religion, politics and, more recently, even against the claims of the public. Also beyond
the immediate context of justification in the research process, there is no functional jus-
tification for public science communication, since an insight obviously does not become
truer simply by being shared publicly, and nor does it become false simply by remaining
unknown to most people.
That means that the idea and practice of the public self-presentation of scientific pro-
cesses of understanding are epistemically non-functional at best; at the same time, though,
they can have societal consequences. Since every action responds to the fact of its observ-
ability, the public domain brings into play motives, criteria and dynamics that can poten-
tially challenge the original “purpose” of science — and thereby also hinder it. In the
following, we are concerned exclusively with these negative consequences of visibility
for the autonomy and functioning of science.
So as not to be misunderstood, we do not want to deny that science has to answer to
society, and especially so if it is publicly funded. It has not yet been decided, though,
which mechanisms in the production of democratic accountability should be used in this
regard. There is in any case no compelling reason to fixate prematurely on PR as the
primary mechanism of accountability. Every democratic society knows areas of public
action that have to be accountable, but that no one would expect to have to be accountable
through presenting itself in public. This applies, for example, to many parts of internal
and external security, where the claim is rather that being too much in the public eye
could have a detrimental effect. And that is precisely our claim for science, too. Areas
of action for which that holds true justify themselves through functioning well. Their
4 F. Marcinkowski and M. Kohring
so-called output legitimacy results from “being good” instead of just “looking good” [3].
Furthermore, of course, such areas should be monitored by an independent journalism
and thereby exposed to public observation.
Who needs science communication?
So how did the demand for public communication from science come into being, if it is
not a core component of what academics do? Besides certain ideological currents, espe-
cially the social-democratization of many European countries and the associated demand
for equal access to higher education, it is primarily economic constraints that are respon-
sible. According to these constraints, the demand for public science communication is
justified by the organization of science, coupled with the dependence of organizations
on money. Science can only be sustained on a permanent basis if it takes place in or-
ganizations (universities, colleges, research centres, etc.), and organizations need money
to motivate membership. Most European countries have publicly funded organizations of
science, with the state collecting money in the form of taxes and passing it on to academic
organizations, for which in return it expects extensive involvement in how the money is
used and reserves the right to monitor how it is spent. The state is answerable for what re-
sults from this to those who provide the money, i.e., to the electorate. As that has become
more difficult and costly, so the state has relieved itself of the duty of detailed responsibil-
ity by tying funding to performance agreements, withdrawing from micro-management,
and granting organizations themselves more autonomy in budgeting and spending [4].
The idea behind this new public management is that, in return, organizations will have to
manage the task of justifying themselves to those who provide the money and use their
services. In that way, the binding of the reformed unit to its external (non-governmental)
“stakeholder” is intended to become closer, so that the unit responds more directly to the
interests of “stakeholders” and also feels a more direct pressure to justify itself with regard
to these “stakeholders” (so-called “public accountability”).
The work of legitimation therefore takes place — apparently so, since everyone knows
that the duty of accountability internal to science is rapidly increasing — not directly with
regard to the state funder, but instead with regard to the electorate or taxpayers. That is
a process of democratization only in appearance; in actual fact, politics withdraws from
its original responsibility of making binding decisions and formulating appropriate crite-
ria for this purpose. Science is subordinated instead to two regimes foreign to it, these
regimes being intended to ensure “efficiency” and “quality”. One is economic rationality,
which has ensured the propagation of the figure of competition alien to science, while the
other is the rationality of media publicity and the pursuit of visibility and attention associ-
ated with it. The latter is not limited to science, and, in conscious reference to Horkheimer
and Adorno’s concept of the culture industry, we could almost talk in terms of an attention
industry. In their pursuit of visibility, both aspects are inextricably intertwined: competi-
tion is publicly demonstrated and staged for the public, the most prominent examples of
which are the German Excellence Initiative and the ubiquitous rankings.
The changing rationale of science communication: a challenge to scientific autonomy 5
Once an institution has made the decision to compete for public attention, it is then
bound (no matter what terms we use to embellish this or how respectable personal motives
are) to the compulsion of self-promotion, of image building and image maintenance, of
self-marketing, of consent management. But above all the criteria of success become ever
more important for the generation of public attention. Science communication is therefore
a gateway for non-scientific motives, relevance criteria and dynamics, and that, from the
perspective of science, is anything but good news.
The collateral damage of publicity
While going along with the needs of the news media was frowned upon until quite re-
cently, universities have believed for several years now that there simply cannot be enough
public attention, and so they work with all means possible to increase their own visibility.
Behind this there is no recognition of a public function of control and criticism, or even
of participation by the lay public. On the contrary, this mediatization of academic institu-
tions, understood as the adaptation to the criteria of public attention, is a PR strategy to
enable universities to survive and thrive in an artificial competition for financial resources
that was initiated in the political domain.
It was once believed that the enlightening of the lay population through knowledge
could also bring about acceptance for the producer of that knowledge. Although this
never really worked as a whole, the belief still has a rational bent which seems almost
touching nowadays. The exaggerated pursuit of public attention is now entirely detached
from the internal logic of science that we have already described, and it therefore detaches
itself also from its functional orientation. Put bluntly, the science system no longer does
what society really needs it for. Most strikingly, this is in the seemingly innocent and
at first glance generous demand to reward academics for public science communication.
Such incentives aim to change science in such a way that it communicates about itself. It
is therefore not science that has primacy, but communication about science. Only recently
did a representative of a well-known German academic organization openly express sym-
pathy for the view that only a blogging academic is a good academic, and that the means
of control of “performance bonuses” could well work here.
What becomes clear from such examples is not only the confusion of visibility with
relevance; much more serious is what we refer to as the exchange of the dominant “cur-
rency”, with the dominant currency of the news media (which is functional and necessary
for society) becoming the dominant currency of science. It exercises a strong influence
at least on the entire process leading to understanding in science: research topics are
chosen according to their current potential for attention, resulting in a mainstreaming of
scholarly work. Hypotheses are formulated according to exactly the same criteria. Puta-
tive research “findings” are published through the mass media before having passed the
peer review process. Results are reframed for the public in order to make positive as-
pects more salient while hiding critical consequences. The social impact of any field of
research is consequently exaggerated. Research money and other rewards are distributed
6 F. Marcinkowski and M. Kohring
to those who master the “beauty contest”, and therefore this process is reinforced. In ef-
fect, academics and their work are evaluated according to whether or not they capture the
attention of a non-academic public sphere [5].
It is said that artificial competitions — that is, competitions without a functioning
demand-driven market on which a price mechanism forces an adjustment of supply to
performance — lead to a perversion of incentive systems [6]. Our thesis goes one step
further: we argue that science communication geared to public attention as an intrinsic
value systematically threatens the quality of science — and precisely because it is public.
How can we justify such a claim?
The competition for media attention in which science is engaged — incidentally, no
longer as the science, but only still as an apparent unity of actually competing organiza-
tions — requires criteria that at least suggest the possibility of comparison. Visibility and
the public attention related to it is one such criterion. As long as journalism produces
this visibility according to its own intrinsic logic, this is not only unproblematic, but even
socially desirable, with journalism highlighting the relevance of science for society. This
means that despite the tight coupling of both systems we expect science journalism to
stick to the rules of journalism, instead of just copying science. But that applies to sci-
ence, too. Academia should also prevent the scientific rationale from colonization by the
logic of public attention instead of turning scientists into accomplices of mediatization.
Yet, the value of an academic is becoming increasingly measured according to whether
he or she has accumulated as many units of the currency of “public attention” as possible.
The mechanism described here increasingly affects, and has already affected, academic
life, including the epistemic procedures of science, so that we can even claim that it has
gradually eaten its way into these processes of understanding at the core of science. In
short, when public attention becomes the dominant criterion, then we consider the demand
for more publicity for science, i.e., for more communication from science into the public
sphere, as being not only alien to science, but indeed harmful to it.
What is good science communication?
So how can we imagine better communication from science into the public sphere? Is
it really the individual academics themselves who benefit from a forced science commu-
nication from science into the public sphere? We would answer with a resounding “no”
here. Is it the academic organization, e.g., a university, that benefits (and then indirectly
its academics)? At first glance, “yes”, since those placed at the forefront in the compe-
tition for attention receive more resources. But even here there is harm done (described
above) to the venture of science, when public attention also becomes the criterion by
which science is judged successful. This diagnosis applies also to those who are not seen
in the truest sense of the word, since every competition generates a lot more losers than
winners, and these losers have also likewise bent themselves double in order to “gain a
profile” (the German Excellence Initiative provides very illustrative examples here). In-
terestingly, those who do not even try would benefit more, for at least they would not
The changing rationale of science communication: a challenge to scientific autonomy 7
corrupt their researchers. But in the attention industry, what has already established itself
as a flaw is not communicating and not considering publicity as a panacea. Those op-
posed to publicity arouse suspicion and are considered stuck in the past. We can see one
thing above all with regard to such arguments: the ideologization of the term “publicity”.
We could also speculate that the taxpayer might benefit from more public communica-
tion of science, because it is thereby made directly accountable to the taxpayer. This is a
very weak argument. It is very doubtful whether there is among the population more than
a marginal interest in such push science communication, which is not to be confused with
a lack of acceptance of science. In fact, public support of science is comparatively high.
Was one of the large communication campaigns on behalf of science really being serious
when it spoke of “dialogue” and similarly lofty ideas? With the recent governance reforms
in higher education and research at the latest, we can see that it is on the whole not about
the ordinary person on the street or the informed citizen. Rather, without wanting to dis-
credit the personal motives of science communicators, we can see that public promotion
of science is about leaving an impression on those who decide upon the levels of invest-
ment in higher education and research, and that is still primarily the political domain.
Politics in turn is accustomed to evaluating its own decisions via media attention, since it
reaches its voters in such a way; but it does not realize that this is totally inappropriate in
the case of science, since this public internal to science simply does not exist.
If we draw a balance sheet, then we can make the following three arguments. First,
“public attention” is the wrong criterion for measuring the quality of individual scientists
and academic institutions. Second, the application of this criterion is directly harmful
to the production of scientific knowledge. Third, spending a lot of money on this, tying
the time of academics down, and increasingly demotivating them — all this is simply
wasting immense resources on the wrong strategy.
If our argument is correct, then “better science communication” would mean adding by
subtracting. We are firmly convinced that science would advance more rapidly and with
greater potential societal benefit without such a strong focus on publicity. By this we by
no means mean that the external communication of science and with it science-related PR
is generally unnecessary. Rather, it is to warn against the ever increasing pervasiveness of
push science communication and the current political drives to persuade everyone to do it.
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Authors
Frank Marcinkowski is Professor of Communication at the University of Muenster, Ger-
many, where he specializes in media theory, political communication, and science com-
munication. He holds in Ph.D. in political science from Mercator University, Duis-
burg/Essen. Marcinkowski has written articles and book chapters on the role of the media
in electoral politics and referenda, the mediatization of science, the role of the media in
new forms of governance, and online campaigning. E-mail: f.marc@uni-muenster.de.
Matthias Kohring is Professor of Media and Communication Studies, University of
Mannheim, Germany. His research focuses on trust in media, the public sphere, and
science communication. E-mail: M.Kohring@uni-mannheim.de.
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International surveys of biomedical researchers and of public information officers, along with further evidence, show a medialization of science in the interactions of (biomedical) science and journalism. It is argued that this implies the institutionalization, professionalization and strategic utilization of media contacts by scientific sources on the individual and organizational level. Furthermore, the growing importance of the organizational context for the regulation of science-journalism interactions is shown. Driving force for the media orientation of science is the need for public legitimation of science in general and of research organizations in particular, leading to the goal of media visibility, which in turn requires compliance with the expectations of the mass media. Medialization of science has consequences, first, for the kind of public constructs of research advocated by scientific sources which partly reflect the strategic motives underlying the communication approaches by scientists and research organizations’ public relations departments. Second, there is evidence for a wide-spread consideration of “public resonance goals” by scientists in decisions about research. And, third, the demand for public visibility of scientific sources along with the orientation of the mass media at public relevance and values has consequences for the governance of science because it motivates scientific actors to seek – or at least claim – compliance of their research with public expectations.
University adaptation in difficult economic times
  • P Mattei
P. Mattei ed. (2014), University adaptation in difficult economic times, Oxford University Press, Cary, U.K.
Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 274. Science In The Context Of Application
  • P Weingart
P. Weingart (2011), "Science, the Public and the Media -Views from Everywhere", in M. Carrier and A. Nordmann eds., Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 274. Science In The Context Of Application, Springer, Dordrecht, NL, pp. 337-348;