Notes of a desperate nature... Why is Czech Sci Comm so hard?
Back in the UK, science is fun. It’s fun and it’s interesting and it’s everywhere. Few people have to travel far to indulge in a little discovery at a science centre, the BBC are constantly churning out engaging and popular science documentaries - and numerous celebrity scientists along the way - and, according to Ipsos-Mori’s 2011 Public Attitudes to Science studies, 9 in 10 people asked agree that scientists make a valuable contribution to society.
Of course, opinions like these are rarely unanimous across a nation (as anyone who saw Horizon’s “Science Under Attack” will know), but there is plenty of work being done, and plenty of people more than willing to do it, to establish and maintain a healthy relationship between scientists, their studies and the wider public.
I am even more confident of the above statement having spent the last four months in the Czech Republic.
Here, it seems as though everything is against science becoming accessible, and organisations like Techmania have been facing a remarkably uphill struggle right from the start.
Somewhat of a barrier to engaging schoolchildren with science is the almost unnatural system of streamlining them from an early age. Over the first few weeks of working here I came to believe that Czech secondary education was of a phenomenally high quality, because most groups that I came into contact with were noticeably intuitive about scientific concepts and some spoke quite decent conversational English.
However, after having some difficulty trying to find details of a national curriculum for a show I was writing, I realised that I was, to an extent, mistaken.
Any groups that were introduced to me had been previously vetted by my colleagues, to assess whether or not they were clever enough to encounter a native English speaker. In the Czech Republic, it’s easy to find out whether a school group is clever or not: if they’re from a Gymnasium, they are, if not, they’re not.
Gymnasiums, I suppose, are the equivalent of the British grammar schools and are found throughout Europe. If a Czech pupil is seen to be bright at the age of 10 they are allowed to attend, and the unlucky majority have a second chance of entry at age 14. The rest are thrown upon the mercy of “vocational” middle schools, where little is expected of them other than securing an apprenticeship and entering the world of work aged 18.
The result of this system, if the comments of my colleagues and my personal observations can be relied on, is effectively that the bright get brighter and the slower get… slowerer. Or at least, they are made to feel that way by most people with a little authority.
What is the impact of this for a science centre? When you consider it, it’s obvious: how do you pitch informal educational programmes to such a polarised market? When many groups are so disinterested in science and so used to being treated as “non-academic” that the complex physical phenomena addressed by the edutorium are automatically disregarded as inaccessible, and the rest are almost bored to be informed of such trivial matters, covered with as much vigour and sophistication in their well-equipped schools, what direction can possibly be taken in the interest of increasing the accessibility and appeal of science?
I’ll leave that open for the floor to chew over.
Curious about the nature of sci comm in this country, I read a 2010 national report entitled “Monitoring Policy and Research Activities on Science in Society in Europe” [insert deep intake of breath]. From the report I gathered that the emphasis of sci comm over the last few years has been placed more on popularising science and an attempt to “win over public understanding for science [sic]” than on encouraging a healthy and dynamic dialogue between scientists and the public. [Indeed, Techmania was founded by the University of West Bohemia and Skoda in the hope that it would stimulate a greater number of science students and potential emplyees.]
But what does that mean? It means that scientists are always right and you should listen to them. As the report quite rightly pointed out, this stance is not exactly ideal, and if scientists expect the public to take an interest in their work and support its funding, they ought to make better attempts to understand the attitude of the public towards science.
For example, recently there were some massive reforms to state funding of scientific research, which shifted its priority to the institutions that efficiently yielded some sort of economic or innovatory gain. A major institution lost out as a result, and the response of the scientific community was that the decision was unfair because industry as a whole was not providing sufficient demand for such innovation.
This in itself is quite a complicated issue: let’s not forget that for 41 years the country was oppressed by communist forces, and when it emerged, squinting at the sunlight of democracy and later desperately trying to re-enforce to the world that “actually, we’re just Czech now. Slovakia is a different country”, Bohemistics studies (that is, humanities related to Czech culture and ethics) became ever-increasingly significant.
On top of that, Czechs have a profound appreciation for ‘the nature’ that I’ve never encountered before. In many ways, scientific study that clashes with what is perceived as natural is fated to lose. But nature doesn’t make money (at least not now that the silver mines have been drained), and money is something that this country is in quite desperate need of.
The long and short of all this is that establishing any form of mutual respect between scientists and the wider public seems to be a far more complex issue than that back in my native country.
One final thought. This country’s president asserted in an interview with FoxNews that global warming was merely “the issue of a new ideology or a new religion”. That’s right. He equates climatologists with preachers.
Thankfully it’s quite clear that Czech citizens aren’t buying into this idea too easily, as the notorious Entropa statue on proud display at Techmania suggests in sarcastically quoting him (incidentally, Mr Klaus was the only “prestigious” visitor I have ever known at Techmania not to be subjected to a viewing of the sculpture).
Maybe this mistrust of the president’s mistrust is something that we can build on, as in a popularity contest any of the CR’s authoritative scientists are likely to win.
All I can hope, for now, is that Techmania keeps trying, and keeps honing in its efforts on making science more accessible for anybody who chooses to visit.