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

The case for an exploratory workshop

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The knowledge society is based on science communication and, historically, on science popularisation. History of science has identified popular science as very fruitful field in recent years and this has now reached a state that allows for national comparison e.g. of Victorian popular science, German bourgeois popularization and French vulgarisation etc. Few scholars, however, have gone beyond print media, i.e. journals, books and newspapers, and one also did rather not yet explore much into the 20th century. Recent research has shown now that scientists remained important actors of popularisation in the 20th century and that the thesis that they withdrew from popular science (and hence leaving the field journalists and hack writers) has been demonstrated to be a "myth" at least for early 20th century Britain. It has been demonstrated that the allegedly "widening gap" between science and public due to abstract theory like quantum and relativity theory stands in stark contrast to strong interest, supply and demand of popular science in Weimar Germany. A promising study of the US case has exhibited that due to the new media – radio and television – new nationally specific forms, modes and effects of popular science arose.

On the other hand we experience a great demand of discussing and evaluating current and recent programmes on improving a public understanding of science, promoting a scientific and technological culture or creating a dialogue between science and public(s). As far as historical analysis and case studies have been employed here, they mostly considered recent decades only. Thus activities like PUS etc. that began in the 1980s need to be historicised and linked with the scholarship on science popularization, the more so as they relate to much greater extent to audiovisual media.

The key idea for the exploratory workshop is hence to bridge this double gap in the history of 20th century science communication and in the coverage also of non-print media from the 1920s to 1980s in which – so the thesis of the workshop – the prevalent experience of a "knowledge society" took place, a concept that has now become as strongly a (laudatory) descriptive notion as it is used to define a (politically important) societal goal.

For these reasons an exploratory workshop that brings together leading scholars of history of science, of media history and other fields of analysis and practice of science communication for the various European countries is envisaged to start a much needed project of writing – and partly rewriting – a first comparative history of science communication for the 20th century. This project is thought to have wide-reaching importance as a necessary historical basis for the current discourse on programmes of science communication, science literacy, science dialogue etc.

More particularly the workshop shall discuss in which ways the image of science in European societies was shaped by a number of media revolutions ranging from the appearance of mass media like affordable newspapers and magazines that included or at times even focused on science and technology to the advent of broadcasting, the introduction of which was sometimes justified by visions that workers could go to school at night or that the nations' universities would be opened to the whole people. Although this did not come true so easily it is apparent from programme listings that topics of science and technology had a surprisingly large share in early radio in various countries in the 1920s and 1930s. Similar development can be found after World War II when television started its first programmes which was a further media change that allowed for new and different types of science and technology coverage.

Given the fact that radio and television were set up in very different ways in the various countries – i.e. in Portugal it were amateurs that organised early radio, in Germany  strong state-control was decisive, in France it was the electro-technical industry, in the Netherlands listeners' associations and in the US commercial networks – the following topics arise:

(A) with regard to general questions of history of science, media and education in the various European societies:

  • factors favouring science programmes
  • radio as a "scientific" medium (both the producer as well as the listeners had to acquire a certain technical aptitude); therefore with respective content?
  • radio and television as means of education
  • media-related paths of scientification

(B) with regard to historical an sociological questions on society:

  • new "understanding" or new "culture" of science through new media
  • political, economical and cultural agendas impeding science communication, e.g. i) in authoritarian regimes of  Eastern Europe, ii) in the German or Iberian dictatorships, but also, iii) in democratic states

The feasibility of achieving the aims of the exploratory workshop is facilitated by the following conditions:

  • national histories of radio and television have been written
  • radio magazines provide a good picture of quality and quantity of science content on the air to start from
  • strategies of making radio and television into means of education, propaganda  etc. with respect to science and technology are known for some cases
  • comparative approaches have successfully been implemented in recent studies of science in newspapers and journals
  • available theories of media in general and of mediatisation of science in particular allow to integrate with the intended historical frame

The proposed workshop is furthermore meant to identify fields of comparative work and to incite farther-reaching collaborative projects on pairs or groups European countries by bringing together scholars that can at least for their home countries specify general developments, help locate relevant sources and identify primary dimensions of comparison in order to propose follow-up grant proposals for comparative in-depth historical studies.

The workshop in itself may, however, already provide and disseminate insights as

  • that current problems of science communication seen from a historical perspective, turn out to be rather old ones (like discussions on the best way to deal with science and technology in newspapers),
  • that history may help to better integrate (public) issues of science and technology as societies have become more and more science based, and
  • that tracing the emergence of national scientific cultures may help to better deal with current projects and problems of science education, science literacy and science understanding in more convincing ways.