The Nature, Communication, and Education of Science
1. The democratization of science
Since the 1970s, the waves of reflections on science and technology and critiques of Big Science have pushed forward the popularity of the democratization of science. Meanwhile, the concept of Citizen Science has emerged, calling attention citizen participation in scientific research. Citizens are increasingly involved in scientific research by raising questions or recruiting science experts to investigate their problems of interest. Moreover, by empowering citizens, a new scientific culture has developed through collaborations between citizens and scientists.
Changes in the nature of science and our expectations are made manifest not only in scientific research, but also in science education, communication and science and technology policy making, from the 21st century. In the aforementioned fields, knowledge has evolved from a traditionally one-way dissemination, from experts to non-experts, to a multi-faceted approach, which allows comprehension across all participants. This contemporary approach not only couples with the empowerment movement of the public in science but underlines the influence of the public on science and technology policymaking.
2. The complexity of participation
One example of the democratization of science is increasing democratic participation into socio-scientific issues (SSI) decision making process. This process often involves a variety of stakeholders, including scientists, politicians, policymakers, voters, corporations, and even countries. As these stakeholders play different roles in the decision-making process, they may bring different perspectives to the conversations. Although this may help to incorporate diversified values into the policy-making process, it does not necessarily lead to a better decision.
2.1 Case study
Socio-scientific issues usually generate heated debates in a society. The conflicts may stem from limited or weak scientific research foundation, incorrect representation of scientific knowledge, or overlooking scientific uncertainty. One such controversial socio-scientific issue in Taiwan is: whether imported pork containing ractopamine should be permitted. This issue was submitted for a referendum to be held in December of 2021. In addition to science, the issue of Ractopamine pork importation is heavily influenced by politics and the public debate. Based on our research, hundreds of scientific papers have been published regarding the additive ractopamine used in livestock, yet, it seems that their findings were not properly and sufficiently referenced by politicians and opinion leaders.
Most people who took part in the debate mentioned that ractopamine residue may harm human health. However, none of the studies has investigated this potential effect on humans. The proponents and opponents can only select limited evidence to support their positions. Those who were unfamiliar with the science related to the issue might simply reiterate others’ opinions without considering original scientific research. An examination of the academic literature cited by the referrers revealed that there was little confrontation between the studies providing conflicting evidence. Also, their interpretation of relevant fundamental scientific principles, such as the dose-response relationship, may vary from position to position.
According to our case study, science and technology policy debates are rarely based on/reference to relevant scientific research. If disputes between stakeholders are limited to repeating disagreements without discussing evidence from scientific literature, it is nearly impossible to achieve a consensus. What is worse, when there is no common ground for people to communicate different perspectives, partisan media tends to present extreme stories, and attitude polarization could easily occur between supporters and opponents.
3. Possible directions for improvement in governance system, science communication and science education
In order to develop a better governance system, a systematic literature review concerning the target controversial socio-scientific issue is required to establish a common knowledge ground for discussion. Also, the review results should be accessible to the public, thereby improving the quality of public discussion.
When encountering controversial socio-scientific issues, the science communication community should take the responsibility to provide accessible scientific knowledge, involve the public in quality scientific debate, promote discussion, and propose policy based on evidence. For example, Science Media Center Taiwan (SMCTW) has launched an expert database, which recruits scientists and journalists and helps to match suitable scientists to elaborate scientific evidence for journalists. SMCTW also helps to diagnose misinformation, identify and clarify common misperceptions of science, create opportunities for public discussion, and build up a discussion platform based on evidence.
As for science education, it is evident that traditional socio-scientific issues taught in classes cannot adequately reflect real controversies in a society. Because the controversies are dynamic, and to be able to discuss and communicate these ideas requires a lot of sophisticated knowledge. This article argues that to create meaningful public discussion, it is crucial to involve scientists in the dialogues to build a common ground to resolve disputes. Moreover, we need to develop science courses that can prepare future citizens with critical thinking skills, and redefine the meaning of participation in the curriculum guidelines of basic education. Ultimately, the participation in class could become an active involvement in socio-scientific issues.