PerspectiveHistory of Science

Public Science 2.0—Back to the Future

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Science  04 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6154, pp. 49-50
DOI: 10.1126/science.1245848

There is no denying that the way in which science operates and is communicated both internally and externally is undergoing a fundamental change. Digitization is enabling greater communication and collaboration among experts as well as between experts and lay people, providing opportunities for lay people to become citizen scientists. Yet these upheavals in research and communication processes—referred to by some as Public Science 2.0—are not completely new phenomena. In some ways, science is returning to a relationship with the public that was the norm in earlier times.

In the 18th century, a popular public experimental culture featured “electric theatres,” in which Leyden jars were used for electric stimulations, such as the discharge through an electric kiss or a human chain (see the figure) (1). Panoramas, cosmoramas (precursors of today's planetariums), and cycloramas (panoramic paintings with a 360° view) brought amazing phenomena directly to the people. As early as 1661, Otto von Guericke, amateur scientist and mayor of the German city of Magdeburg, put his findings about “empty space” into the public domain when he showed that 16 horses could not pull apart two brass hemispheres that had had the air pumped out of them.

Electricity en vogue.

In the 18th century, people got in touch with the electric thrill in diverse Leyden experiments, here via the human chain (12).


People have long experimented and gathered observations about the world around them (2), such as collecting data on plant and animal distributions or weather conditions. Toward the end of the 18th century, however, researchers began to conduct their work away from the public eye. Precision measurements with torsion balances, such as those carried out by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb and Henry Cavendish, could be done only in isolated experiment rooms. The advance forced those who had previously performed trials in public to vanish into laboratories. Science presentations in aristocratic circles also diminished when scientists came to be increasingly sponsored by the state rather than aristocratic patrons.

After the withdrawal of researchers from public view, science and its external communication grew apart. Internal scientific communication in respective specialist languages became established. Scientific journals, using peer review, became the central feature of the scientific process that remained largely hidden from the public. However, some venues for external scientific communication were developed. For example, the Royal Society in Great Britain established the Royal Institution in 1799 to support public engagement with science, mostly through public lectures (3). Such scientists as Albert Einstein considered it part of their duties as researchers to actively communicate results. Einstein gave public lectures (4), published the book Relativity: The Special and General Theory in 1917 (5), and even released a vinyl record of him reading out his “credo” in 1932 (6).

An important turning point came with the emergence of modern mass media in the 20th century. It became home to much of the popular and scientific discourse, where journalists and editorial offices selected and tailored the topics according to their own criteria such as news value and relevance, with little room for dialog. “Professional science lost the public of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century to the media. It is now dependent on the media,” says sociologist Peter Weingart, summing up the situation at the outset of the 21st century (7).

Today, the internal and external communication processes of science are changing. Researchers can publicly display their work on new media platforms, freeing themselves a little from their dependence on the professional media and interacting more directly with other parts of society. At science slams or the FameLab competition, researchers deliver imaginative presentations, hoping to gain the audience's vote. In Science Cafés, lay people exchange ideas with experts. Laboratory open days allow the public to take a closer look at research institutions and gain insight into their work. Children's Universities are aimed specifically at young people. Public and patient forums invite critical dialog with researchers.

Through blogs and blog aggregation sites such as ScienceBlogs, SciLogs, and Scientific American Blogs, researchers engage with each other and the public. Some blogging scientists' posts reach tens of thousands of users, gaining mass media dimensions; examples include climate debate blogs like RealClimate (8) and KlimaLounge (9). Some researchers are also active on social networks (10). A prominent example is the 2011 Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, who tweets as @cosmicpinot. The scientists who are getting involved in social media are moving in the marketplaces of the 21st century.

In these modern forms of science communication, researchers can be addressed as individuals without a need for a publishing body. By making use of both established and new media for their external communication, scientists are returning to a facet of their profession that was familiar to scientists of former centuries: the translator role. Radical changes are also affecting internal scientific communication and thus the scientific process itself. Scientific publications and data are increasingly openly accessible online. Collaborative platforms enable new forms of literature management, cooperation, and information exchange.

Digital collaboration between scientists often allows nonspecialists to become spectators of the research; in certain projects, they can even participate in the scientific process itself as citizen scientists—for example, by counting stars or snails in projects such as Zooniverse or Evolution MegaLab. With digital options like sharing project ideas and sampling data, citizen science today is potentially available to all (11).

Modern communication brings science a little way back toward where it once came from: the people. Not everyone is happy about this and there are risks associated with Public Science 2.0; for example, sharing concepts, ideas, and data openly on the Internet can result in intellectual property abuse, and excessive engagement in social media may cause a loss of reputation among peers. However, when practiced skillfully, Public Science 2.0 is likely to inspire lay-people and researchers alike.

References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: C.K. founded SciLogs in 2007. B.L. was managing editor of when it was launched.

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