I Want to Understand Who Understands What!

Ilan Chabay, Sweden´s first professor of public learning and understanding of science, serves as Program Chairman for the Conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST). Professor Chabay is leading the process to develop this year´s conference program. He describes his focus on understanding how scientific communication functions, how people create their perceptions about science, and how these perceptions can be influenced.
“I want to understand who understands what!” he says, with emphasis.
Professor Ilan Chabay emphasizes that the word “communication” means that information should flow in both directions.
For researchers to successfully reach out with their message, they must communicate with the community. They must understand how the public will react to the new information. What kind of knowledge and experience does the public already have, and what driving forces, or barriers, can change that knowledge?”

Reactions to Katrina surprised

As an example of what can go wrong when communication is only a one-way process, Ilan Chabay describes the situation that arose in New Orleans as hurricane Katrina approached. People did not react as the authorities had expected. When scientists and public officials informed people about the situation they did not take into consideration the public´s pre-existing knowledge and priorities. The result was chaos.

As an example of what we can do to increase understanding for each other´s knowledge, and promote communication among different parties, he mentions a project that was launched by the Gothenburg Centre for Public Learning and Understanding of Science, an organization that aims to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners who communicate scientific information. The project aims to understand and improve the communication of science between the different members of the Baltic Sea Regional Advisory Council, a body that advises the European Commission. The Council consists of a group including scientists, fishermen, consumers, and public officials in the Baltic region who are working together to determine how to manage sustainable fishing in the Baltic Sea .

Governance, Innovation, and Inclusion

Sustainability is an important concept in Ilan Chabay´s work. Much of the research in the world today is based on finding solutions that will lead to a more sustainable society.
“To achieve a sustainable society, we must start from three concepts: governance, innovation, and inclusion”, he says.

By governance he means a process of managing resources that is based on communication among all affected parties, and by innovation, the development of technology that is needed to achieve a sustainable society. Inclusion is essential given the global context of our environment.

“If discussions about a sustainable society are to lead to concrete results, people in communities all over the world must become involved and informed about the critical issues that affect them. They must be a part of the governance process”, says Ilan Chabay.


Alan B Leviton Award

Regarding the advancement of science and technology, Ilan Chabay emphasizes how important it is for young people to generate new ideas. Much of his work has focused on strategies to engage children and young people in learning about science. In 1999, Ilan Chabay received the Alan B Leviton Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “Outstanding achievement in the science education of children and youth.” AAAS is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world.

In the spring of 2008, Ilan Chabay will be leading the process to finalize the programme for PCST´s conference in June. His goals and aspirations for the conference are to give as many participants as possible an opportunity to discuss and share their experiences in science communications. He hopes that this discourse will inspire a wealth of interesting and constructive discussions.

Text: Jenny Johansson