Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | STEP: Lessons on the Role And Uses of New Media for Science

STEP: Lessons on the Role And Uses of New Media for Science

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Ana Simoes (CIUHCT, Lisbon, Portugal)



My contribution to this workshop has to do with my previous work on popularization of science/communication of science which has essentially taken place within the STEP international group and certainly within the historiographical reflections on the drawbacks of the traditional center-periphery dichotomy and its associated diffusionist model. (I have never worked on science communication in new media such as radio, TV and movies, and so my contribution is going to be somewhat collateral to the main topic of the workshop.)

My talk will be built around 3 main parts:

1) a brief presentation of the aims and accomplishments of the STEP group;

2) a discussion of the results of research on the uses of newspapers to convey news about science and technology in the European periphery, based on my research work on Portuguese newspapers; and finally

3) a suggestion of how conclusions arrived at in the context of the discussion on communication of science and technology in newspapers in the European Periphery may eventually be used to inform historical work on other media such as radio, TV and movies.




What is STEP? Aims and accomplishments

The international research group Science and Technology in the European Periphery (STEP) was created in 1999 and gathers scholars from many countries of the European Periphery.i It is purposefully a loosely structured group, sharing a web-site and a discussion list.ii The group organizes conferences every 2 years, which were thematically arranged until 2008.iii Besides individual publications it has published several collective volumes.iv A 9-authored paper has also come out addressing historiographical questions.v

STEP members aim at studying the circulation of science and technology within Europe in such ways as to overcome the constraints of their local contexts often heavily tinted by positivist approaches and explore ways to tie their research endeavors with mainstream historiography. Using different methodological approaches to discuss a variety of topics, their endeavors delineated the contours of a new historiography of science and technology in the European Periphery (EP). By criticizing the value-ladenness associated with the center-periphery dichotomy and the assumptions behind diffusionist models, which accept the separation of creative centers from passive peripheral contexts and the unidirectional flow of science and technology from centers to peripheries, they moved away from a historiography of transmission to a new historiography built on the concept of appropriation.

The concept of appropriation stems from cultural history and calls attention to the specificities of the “receiving” culture, with its social, political, religious and cultural specificities. In this new framework, the local agents are endowed with a creative function. Practices are transformed when they move from one place to the other. Appropriation draws attention to the fact that when practices “arrive”/are deployed at a certain place, they are not integrated into an ideological vacuum. On the contrary, they are articulated with the multiple cultural traditions of a specific society at a particular moment of its history. New scientific discourses are articulated in the local context, legitimizing strategies and spaces are created, and resistance to the new practices usually emerges. The local peripheral context chooses to be influenced in certain specific ways.

Our aim is two-fold. On a first step we attempt to unravel the specificities of the appropriation process taking place in different peripheral contexts in different periods and for different thematic situations. By stressing various and multidirectional responses, we contribute to the international historical scene with a variety of new case studies which enrich current views and often revise received ones.

However, at a second level, without eliminating asymmetries, our main purpose is to highlight similarities, not differences, among the various peripheries in order to unveil common This novel enterprise is oriented towards the writing of a historical narrative which will concur to the emergence and structuring of a concept of periphery, beyond the centre-periphery traditional dichotomy. Such a re-definition of the concept of periphery should be mainly operational in the sense of enabling historians to deal with periphery without implying its disqualification relative to centers, thereby providing the concept itself with an autonomous status. In this sense, Science and Technology in the European periphery is taken as a historical problem while the European periphery becomes a historical actor.

Preliminary conclusions in the constitution of Science and Technology in the European periphery as a historical actor are summarized in what follows.


  • Politically-, rather than socially-, driven science and technology

  • Personal networking (as opposed to institutional backing)

  • Emphasis on immediate applications (as a kind of quick-fix)

  • Transformation of asymmetries, not elimination of asymmetries.

  • Awareness of fluidity of (historiographical) concepts, historical actors (individuals) and (historical) structures. Blurred dichotomies.vii


The role of newspapers as privileged sources for communicating science and technology in the European Periphery

Within STEP and the thematic of popularization, my research (and that of a group of Portuguese colleagues) has been centered on newspapers, a very specific print media and never on mass media such as radio, TV or movies.

In what follows I offer a few ideas concerning the role and uses of newspapers in Portugal (and eventually Greece and Spain using the case of the coverage of 1910 return of Halley's Comet) in order to point out specific peripheral characteristics of their roles and uses.

Let me first start to call attention to the fact that just recently, that is in the last decade, has the history of science community began to pay attention to the role of mass media in communicating science and technology to non-specialized audiences, and specifically to the role of the daily press in such endeavor. Interestingly, science and technology communicated in newspapers situated in peripheral countries played a central role in producing such historical shift, which is inextricably associated with discussions and research done within the international group Science and Technology in the European Periphery (STEP).viii

A group of Portuguese members of STEP has been involved in the group’s activities both in what relates to communication of/expository science and to science, technology and medicine (STM) in the press, which is my focus of concern in this talk. In what relates to STM in the press, the starting point was the creation of a database of transcriptions of all STM news appearing in three generalist newspapers, chosen for their wide circulation, different geographical provenances and broad ideological scope, in the period from 1900 to 1926, a convoluted period of Portuguese history, including the last years of a constitutional monarchy and the whole First Republic (1910-1926).ix Let me clarify that in Portugal, contrary to what happens in many other countries, including Spain and Greece to a certain extent, there is yet no database of digitalized newspapers, so that we had to begin our work by building one suitable to our purposes.

Let me also note that in peripheral poor countries with high illiteracy rates such as Portugal (80% at the beginning of the 20th century), the daily press, much more than periodicals, is able to reach out to the masses through multiple and oral readings, and therefore emerges as a particularly suggestive source for unraveling the images of science and technology conveyed to the public and the perception of their role in society. It further enables to identify those instances in which science news become instances of popularization of science.

After briefly presenting the rationale behind our work let me go on to point to its major conclusions. By analyzing newspapers articles, at times together with other instances of circulation of science (journals, books etc) focusing on natural events, including earthquakes, the 1900 total solar eclipse, and the 1910 return of Halley’s comet, research has attempted to illustrate:


  1. The importance of locality in shaping news about science in the press;

  2. The ways used by the Portuguese scientific/astronomical communities to successfully appropriate natural events to serve their varied scientific agendas;x

  3. How scientists often used the daily press, in the Portuguese cases under study in the context of the republican movement whose positivistic orientation presented science as an antidote to religion and superstition, as a means to educate the people and to modernize the country;xi

  4. How attempts made by the scientific elites to gain support of the general public to specific agendas turned specific instances of science journalism into successful forms of expository science.xii


Finally a truly comparative study, not a juxtaposition of case-studies, of the public perceptions of the 1910 return of Halley’s Comet stemming from the Greek, Portuguese and Spanish generalist press is under way.xiii Again, a forceful preliminary conclusion is:


  1. The strong role of locality in shaping the character, contents and style of scientific news,

  2. Different uses of newspapers in pushing forward scientific agendas by local astronomers and institutions, and

  3. Different gradations in the participatory role of the public.


Having summarized the major conclusions of our group’s research work let me proceed to stress what I consider some specific characteristics of the roles and uses of newspapers in peripheral contexts. A preliminary remark has to do with the difficulty of using newspapers as sources for the historian of science and technology in a European Periphery. At least in the Portuguese case, and I guess that this happens also in other instances, there is an accrued difficulty in doing research on these sources due to their difficult access and lack of digitization. Another has to do with the importance of newspapers in providing a privileged source to cater to wide audiences (through reading aloud), which in most peripheral contexts are largely illiterate populations, including often an incipient middle-class and an ample working class. In fact, contrary to newspapers, popularization of science journals are often expensive and presuppose a command of the written word in order to enhance people’s scientific literacy. Other characteristics which appear to be closely associated with peripheral contexts are the following:


  1. Importance of scientists (when contrasted to science journalists or journalists tout court) as writers of newspaper articles which often can be classified as belonging to the genre of popularization of science articles.

  2. Recourse to newspapers by fragile scientific communities to legitimize specific scientific agendas.

  3. Use of newspapers to push forward a rhetoric of modernization, centered on the importance of science for the common good and the country’s progress (discourses on modernity emerge and are shaped against an external state of things).



From newspapers to audiovisual media. What can we learn from the STEP experience?

Having STEP in mind, what questions can we formulate which would suggest themselves if one follows the STEP perspective through the age of radio, TV and movies, as they are the main "new media" that have had an impact comparable to that newspapers had earlier.

We should certainly have in mind the following general guidelines:


  • Does it make sense to look for similar roles/uses/importance of audiovisual media when we assess contributions from so-called centers and so-called peripheries? If not, what sort of contrasts are we going to be confronted with?

  • The involvement of scientists in these media has similarities with their involvement in newspapers?

  • Importance of comparative studies involving countries of the European Periphery as well as countries of the European Periphery and other European countries.

  • Importance and degree of interactions with the political context.

  • Role of local, regional and national differences.


Now back to the issues specifically suggested by the use of newspapers. What problems can we take into consideration when moving into different sorts of new media:


  • What role for radio and TV in reaching out to a largely illiterate population, if not strictly illiterate, often deeply scientific illiterate? What differences do we expect to find in state-funded (public) radio and TV when contrasted with private radio and TV?

  • What role for programs imported from abroad when contrasted with local ones? Do they inhibit the production of local programs? Which can reach out to larger fractions of the population? (This question will be dependent on the EP country’s policy to dub foreign programs, for instance). In translating these programs in view of subtitling or dubbing are scientists consulted? Are they called to intervene in the choices?

  • Explore instances in which Radio and TV become privileged vehicles for popularization of science.

  • How much and how often are Radio and TV used as vehicles for the legitimization of fragile scientific communities?

  • How much and how often are Radio and TV used as rhetorical tools of modernization?

  • How, how much and in what contexts do Radio and TV become tools of political and ideological control over people (listeners and TV watchers)?

  • In EP countries where middle-class women are often a considerable fraction of the working force did they become a privileged target for media broadcasts?



The former reflections were based on the STEP experience on the use of newspapers as sources for unveiling the public images of science and technology in countries of the European Periphery. What I tried to pinpoint briefly is the extent to which the results of such research can be used as a guide to outline research lines, topics and questions to enlighten future projects using as sources audiovisual media such as Radio, TV and movies.



i Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden.

ii Web-site: List: NODUS: Science and Technology in the European Periphery e-mail list NODUS@LISTSERV.UV.ES

iii Scientific Travels, Lisbon, Portugal 2000; Scientific and Technological Textbooks, Aigina, Greece, 2002; Traditions and realities of national historiographies of science, Aarhus, Denmark, 2004; Scientific and Technological popularization in the European Periphery, Mao, Minorca, 2006; Looking back, Stepping Forward, Istanbul, Turkey, 2008; Galway, Ireland, 2010; Corfu, Greece, 2012 (June).

iv STEP Volumes: Ana Simões, Ana Carneiro, Maria Paula Diogo, eds., Travels of Learning. A Geography of Science in Europe (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003); Special Issue “Textbooks in the Scientific Periphery”, Guest editors: Antonio Garcia Belmar, José Rámon Bertomeu-Sánchez, Manolis Patiniotis and Anders Lundgren, Science and Education, 15 (7-8) (2006); Special Issue “National historiographies of science”, Nuncius 23 (2) (2008); Faidra Papanelopoulou, Agusti Nieto-Galan, Enrique Perdiguero, Popularizing Science and Technology in the European Periphery, 1800-2000 (Asgate, 2009).

v Kostas Gavroglu, Manolis Patiniotis, Faidra Papanelopoulou, Ana Simões, Ana Carneiro, Maria Paula Diogo, Jose Ramon Bertomeu-Sánchez, Antonio Garcia Belmar, Agusti Nieto-Galan, “Science and technology in the European periphery. Some historiographical reflections”, History of Science 46 (2008), 153-175.

vi Traditionally, a sub-group of comparative reception studies has been concerned with accounting either for the differences between centers and peripheries or between peripheries. While there are not many comparative studies written by “peripheral” authors, impressionistic comments abound oscillating between a hagiographic type and the rhetoric of backwardness or decadence. In turn, the accounts about peripheries built up by historians of the so-called centers tend to assess peripheries using criteria stemming from the centre, thereby overlooking the creative role of peripheries.

vii By this we mean that there is not a sharp and clear boundary separating production and consumption of scientific ideas, practices and instrumentation. Nor there is a sharp and clear boundary between production and popularization or between production and textbook writing. Furthermore, while professionalization is usually associated with the emergence of various institutions, the awareness of the fluidity of structures points to the existence of more fluid and elusive modules which complement or substitute more conventional institutions such as societies, academies, etc. Concomitantly, there is not a sharp distinction between the scientist, the popularizer of science, or the teacher. Often the same individual performs multiple tasks, which are usually associated with the above designations, but he does not distinguish among them, taking them as equal partners in the enterprise of appropriating natural knowledge.

viii STEP publications on newspapers include an issue of the journal Centaurus, 51 (2009), with papers on Denmark, Greece and Spain, and an introduction by F. Papanelopoulou, P. Kierkgaard, “Making the paper: science and technology in Spanish, Greek and Danish newspapers around 1900,” Centaurus, 51 (2009), 89-96. Related to STEP, and including contributions by STEP members, it has come out recently an issue of the journal Science & Education 21 (2012), including case studies from Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Greece and German, of which the Greek and the Portuguese case studies deal specifically with newspapers. The introduction is: Arne Schirrmacher, “Popular science between news and education: A European perspective” Science & Education 21 (2012), 289-91

ix Conceição Tavares, Ana Carneiro, Maria Paula Diogo, Ana Simões, “A Imagem Pública da Ciência na Imprensa Portuguesa (1900-1901)”, in Carlos Cordeiro, Susana Serpa Silva (coord.), A História da Imprensa e a Imprensa na História. O contributo dos Açores, Ponta Delgada: Centro de Estudos Gaspar Frutuoso, CEIS 20, 2009, pp. 519-536.

x Ibid.

xi Ana Simões, Isabel Zilhão, Maria Paula Diogo, Ana Carneiro, “Halley turns republican. How the Portuguese press perceived the 1910 return of Halley’s Comet,” accepted for publication in History of Science.

xii Ana Simões, Ana Carneiro, Maria Paula Diogo, “Riding the waves: natural events in the early twentieth-century Portuguese press”, Science and Education, 21(3) (2012), 311-333; Ana Simões, Ana Carneiro, Maria Paula Diogo, “What can news about earthquakes, volcanoes and eclipses tell us?”, Preprint MPIWG, in Arne Schirrmacher, ed., Communication Science in the 20th century. A survey on research and comparative perspectives, MPIWG Preprint 385, 2009, pp.27-43.

xiii Ana Carneiro, Maria Paula Diogo, Ana Simões, Isabel Zilhão, Eirini Mergoupi-Savaidou, Faidra Papanelopoulou, Spyros Tzokas, “Comparing the public perceptions of science and technology in the Greek and the Portuguese daily press, 1908-1910,” talk presented at the ESHS, Barcelona, 2010.