By Noam Bercovitz
In June of last year the Knesset's Education Committee held a special session entitled "High School Graduates are Science Know-nothings". The committee's discussions revealed that the percentage of students taking the physics matriculation exam has dropped to 13% and that the situation in other science subjects is not much better. These figures confirmed the general public opinion and the opinion of professionals that science education in Israel is in deep distress.
Those who are responsible, among others, for studying this issue and providing solutions are the faculty members of the Department of Education in Technology and Science at the Technion, and many of the department's products are studies and proposals for improving teaching methods and measures. Dr. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a new faculty in the department, proposes an innovative approach in which exploiting mass media has a central role.
Baram-Tsabari is an advocate of Science Communication (a new area of study in Israel) and believes that mass media is an important tool in promoting the position and goals of science as well as a field in which the battle between rational and irrational thought is occurring. In her opinion, in the triangle of the public-media-science, the public is a given fact. It won't help matters if we get angry with it. The second side - media - is open to influences and improvement to some degree, whereas the third side - the scientific-academic world - is the most amenable, in our terms, to influence. Through this third side a change can be brought about, a change that will disseminate science more in the Israeli media and raise its quality.
Baram-Tsabari believes that the starting point in mediating science to the broad public should be to listen to what the public is interested in and what it needs, and not by deciding on its behalf what concepts it should know. In her doctoral work at Weizmann Institute, she examined the question of what children and youth are interested in when studying science and found that many scientific issues interest them and that content that is already in the curriculum can be linked to these areas. In cooperation with Dr. Elad Segev, a post-doctoral fellow at Hebrew University and a lecturer in the Department of Communications at Ben-Gurion University, she studied new ways to find out what interests the public about science using freely available information on Google. At present she is examining the relation between the amount of exposure a scientific subject gets in the media and the number of searches about it on the Internet.
As someone who worked as a journalist and editor before her studies and in parallel to her undergraduate studies in biology and her doctorate in science education, Baram-Tsabari feels comfortable with the media and its apathy and ignorance does not threaten her, as it does to many other academics. She knows from up close the media's power to put on the agenda important topics and ensure they penetrate the public's consciousness, or in contrast, to make them fade from public debate.
In order to promote her area of interest, Dr. Baram-Tsabari organized a conference on the subject of science in the Israeli media. The first conference was held at the Technion about a year ago and the second conference was held last December at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, as part of the celebrations marking the academy's jubilee. Baram-Tsabari places special importance on the academy's sponsorship of the issue. "There are many people in the scientific community who prefer not to engage with the public, who try to separate science from public taste and the culture of ratings," she says, "therefore, it is important that the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities presents this subject for discussion, as has been done in the U.S. and U.K. If we give up on the public, in the end, it may give up on us."
Baram-Tsabari agrees that the media in Israel must improve its scientific reporting. For example, today in Israel there is not even one full-time science journalist, in contrast to the situation in Western and Arab countries. Nonetheless, according to her, those involved in science must also devote more time to thinking about how to present the topics in which they specialize so that they are understandable, meaningful and thought-provoking. Researchers must learn to understand the medium and the audience and to fit their delivery to the audience's ability to absorb it. The scientific establishment must allow those interested in doing so to receive training and instruction in how to do this, and organize scientific cadres able and wanting to communicate with the public using mass media, also in areas that are not their specific fields of specialization.
The natural hesitation of a researcher invited to a television studio to present his or her latest discovery is clear to Baram-Tsabari. The scientific world is hierarchical and has a set format for debate, whereas the media is characterized by a confused democracy that gives air time to both sides of an argument, even if the debate is between a world renowned astrophysicist and the head of the Association of Persons Abducted by Aliens. In many instances, interviewers raise embarrassing and irrelevant questions just to cut the scientist off gracelessly and move on to a commercial. Baram-Tsabari suggests also checking the options here: researchers avoid coming to the studio and instead a charlatan, a pseudo-scientist, or anyone who can present the culture of irrationality that constitutes the eternal threat to science comes to the studio, and in the researcher's absence, gets double the air time.
Science in the media is part of a wider campaign to mediate between science and the public, which is subsumed under the title: public engagement. This area includes open discussions in areas under debate, opening laboratories to visiting pupils and more. Increased public engagement is now being emphasized in Europe, particularly, in Britain, and also in the U.S. More research foundations are requiring a section on public engagement in the research proposals submitted to them as a condition for funding and in Britain ₤9.2 million has been allocated for a four-year project for promoting relations between the public and academia.
Dr. Baram-Tsabari: "Overseas they have understood the importance of this subject for the future. Supportive public opinion is essential for science in order to get supportive legislation, continued funding of basic science, and to prepare the next generation of scientists and the next generation of professionals in areas related to science and technology. The public is also entitled to get scientific knowledge in a simple and clear manner so that it can make critical decisions such as whether to get vaccinated or to avoid eating genetically engineered food. Beyond this, as those who will be funding the majority of research, taxpayers have a democratic right to know what is being done with their money."
To the question of whether she is not worried that public engagement on such issues may hurt academic freedom and basic research, Baram-Tsabari responds that, "the fear exists and ways must be found to ensure that there is no such effect. On the other hand, the alternatives of avoidance and withdrawal are liable to estrange science completely from the public and over the long term greatly harm scientific research and the character of the society in which we live."