Everyone deserves knowledge: New study helps to bring science to a broad public

Thomas Quine

Everyone deserves knowledge: New study helps to bring science to a broad public

Remember those first trips you took to the science museum? Remember feeling wonder and awe learning about how things function on our planet? Were the hands-on exhibits your favorite? These kinds of questions may be difficult to answer if you grew up a racial minority in a poor community. Why? Because our society designs science museums--and all science learning and communication activities--for a narrow audience. A new study explores how we got here and suggests more inclusive ways to communicate science to a broad public.

Dawson, Emily, “Reimagining publics and (non) participation: Exploring exclusion from science communication through the experiences of low-income, minority ethnic groups,” Public Understanding of Science (January 2018): 1-15, DOI: 10.1177/0963662517750072.

Visit a museum. Explore a botanic garden. Attend a science festival. Tour a zoo. Around the world, these science activities are open to the public. Yet, only certain communities have the opportunity to experience them. Our society excludes large groups of people in the way it communicates science. Why are individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic and racial minorities less likely to participate in science activities? The root of this problem is structural inequality, which is perpetuated by the inaction of decision makers. This egregious flaw in the system means that some people are excluded simply for not being part of the majority white population. These excluded groups often don’t receive invitations to science events or new museum exhibits. Some don’t feel welcome when they do make the effort to visit one of these places. Many cannot relate to the point of view of the stories or the manner in which they are told.

How do we know this?

A new study published in the international journal, Public Understanding of Science, collected people’s personal experiences to understand the ways they felt excluded from science communication. The author, Dr. Emily Dawson of University College London, met with 66 participants over a period of two years. The participants were from backgrounds under-represented in science activities–low income, minority racial and ethnic groups.

First, Dawson found that the participants were aware of London’s many prestigious science institutions but were unable to use these resources. Logistical barriers to participating in science activities were significant. Every participant came from a minority ethnic group, lived in central London, and had a precarious employment situation. Exploitative hours and bad pay prohibited participants from taking part in science activities. Again, this goes back to structural inequality, but to stay within the scope of this article, we will begin by addressing the false narratives used to describe these groups. The scientific community frames these disengaged individuals as the problem. They are believed to have “the wrong values and attitudes” and that is why they don’t participate. Until now, we have accepted this myth rather than examine whether science communication practices are exclusive.

Another recurring theme among participants was the feeling that they were not welcome in the very places where most people experience science for the first time. One participant of Latin American heritage pointed out that an exhibition on Colombian butterflies left out Colombia’s vivid, science-related cultural history. Other participants lamented the omission of Mary Seacole, an important nurse in the Crimean War, from television and museums. They saw her as a positive example of Black womanhood. Meanwhile, a white nurse in the same war, Florence Nightingale, receives acclaim in museums around the world. According to participants, the portrayal of black people–when represented at all–always seems to be framed around stories of slavery. This study finds that representing racial minorities in this way creates what feels like a “whitewashed, disempowering history.”

This study unearths examples of cultural imperialism embedded in science communication (e.g., museum exhibits), which spreads messages of dominance and oppression. Once we acknowledge this, it becomes clear why many participants feel more comfortable learning about science through YouTube videos or popular television series like The Big Bang Theory. Or why a black participant may not feel inclined to attend science events after only receiving invitations during Black History Month.

Dawson argues that we need to fundamentally reimagine how we communicate science with the public. An inclusive model must include multiple voices, spaces, and publics. When museums receive funds to design new collections, for example, they must acknowledge that past methods of communication have made people feel excluded. New exhibits should reflect this understanding. Marginalized groups must always be represented truthfully and respectfully, highlighting their cultures, knowledge, and values.  If we don’t change our model, we will continue to leave behind large groups of people, further reinforcing societal inequalities. It’s time to make science truly accessible to a broad public.

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