Is the new wave of science communication – web-based, renegade and prolific – going to democratise science or not?

Are social media simply the latest frontier for public engagement?

FOEA recently got together with scientists, science communicators, policy wonks and the twitterati to try to answer some of these questions and to explore how science, society and social technologies fit together at the Media140 conference in Brisbane, Queensland. Ostensibly, we were there to speak about the role for social media in democratising the relationship between science and society.

However, between the techno-optimists and the facebook faithful, a truly robust discussion about the relationship between science and society, ideals of citizen participation and questions about legitimacy and diverse knowledge forms seem to have become slightly lost in the fray.

We spoke in the opening panel about whether or not social technologies are democratising the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge. We asked whether social technologies would effectively challenge dominant structures and knowledge forms – such as, industrial capitalism and western science – or serve to entrench them and drown out critical voices. We cautioned against viewing social technologies as a magical panacea for shoddy public participation processes and warned about their potential for misuse, for distributing government and industry propaganda more effectively.

Finally we reminded participants of the need to move beyond the very narrow risk vs. benefits framework to discuss the broader health and safety and social and environmental implications of scientific research and technological innovation.

Broadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a general reluctance to approach western scientific rational discourse critically and to discuss other forms of knowledge and ways of knowing as legitimate and important. Social technologies, as the interface between experts and amateurs (or publics), were discussed in terms of how to ensure that “the message was not lost” and how to ensure that debates were not hijacked by “anti-science ideologies”.

This suggests that public participation in debates is still very much allowable only within a narrow frame and that expressing a critical perspective on science research and technological innovation can still find you branded as anti-science.

The conference was organised jointly by media140 and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Reseach. Despite an opening panel discussion which flagged the use of the web to “distort, misinform and distribute propaganda” most participants seemed entirely unself-conscious about receiving a stack of pro-nanotechnology DIISR communications materials alongside our conference programmes – tucked neatly into a DIISR folder.

Audio and video from the panel presentations will be available here shortly thanks to a small army of University of Queensland journalism students.