Many universities have dedicated student-run science publications. Such publications are ideal places for young science writers to work with an editorial team, build up confidence and grow their portfolios. But they are also teasers of what is to come from the emerging generation of science writers.

Periodically, we’ll cover some of those student-run science publications here on The SA Incubator. Today, the departing editorial team of Imperial College’s I, Science tells us all about the last issue they published. Fittingly perhaps, the issue’s theme is science communication. You can read an introduction to I, Science on this blog here.

21 Years of Science Communication.

This year the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London came of age—or so writes Stephen Webster, head of the Group, in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine, I, Science. As part of its 21st-birthday celebrations, the Group commissioned a special issue of the magazine, with which Science Communication Group students have historically been heavily involved. The issue was funded by the Wellcome Trust, with an obvious theme in mind—science communication.

Science communication has been around for as long as science, and many early scientists wrote for an interested—but not necessarily specialist—readership. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, for example, was a Victorian bestseller. But despite the weight of popular science books on shelves today, the last year has seen more hand-wringing about the state of science communication than ever.

Science Communication, on the other hand—big ‘S’, big ‘C’—is a much more recent phenomenon, at least in the UK. Walter Bodmer’s report, The Public Understanding of Science, published by the Royal Society in 1985 when public trust in science and its institutions was at a low ebb, kick-started a movement that aimed to promote the person-in-the-street’s awareness and “understanding” of science. The patronising tone has softened over the intervening generation, and “public understanding” became “public engagement” with a nod to the fact that communication is a two-way thing. But there’s still a big question being begged. What is science communication for?

Is it so that people can remain informed, allowing them to make up their minds about complicated matters? Sometimes, perhaps. But what are we to do with the latest information about star formation? Or that the Higgs has been sighted? As Felicity Mellor argues in the special issue, could the impact of much science journalism—and indeed science communication as a whole—simply be aesthetic? An evocation of wonder, the sublime. After all, as Mellor points out, despite the recent flurry of news headlines about the Higgs particle spotted at CERN, how many of us truly understand its significance? And even if we do, does this change how we act day-to-day, or how we consider decisions we find ourselves faced with?

Certainly, there’s a need for investigative journalism that helps to hold science to public account, but isn’t that just journalism? What’s special about science? Science communication is also about more than the written word. Radio, film, visualisations, interactive apps, festivals, and exhibitions are all woven together in a rich tapestry of dissemination. The ‘science communication’ issue features guest articles by lecturers within Imperial College’s Science Communication Group, each exploring how their specific area of expertise and interest relates to the field, and how it has changed over the past 21 years. Some of the lecturers are themselves course alumni. As Gareth Mitchell, lecturer in broadcast (radio) on the Science Communication MSc, wistfully remembers, “I still have a copy of my MSc in Science Communication radio coursework. It is not a file on my computer, but a spool of magnetic tape. We students in 1994 recorded location interviews on a SONY Walkman, and edited with a razorblade and sticky tape.”

But while much has changed, much has also stayed the same. This is the focus of an article on policy changes in science by Ehsan Masood, editor of Research Fortnight and Research Europe. He touches on the areas of genetic modification, nuclear power, patenting, science funding and evidence-based policy in an analysis of just how much has really changed over the last couple of decades. These injections of applied science communication stand out from more academic pieces (for example, an analysis of documentary as a medium for such communication by TV lecturer Bob Sternberg, head of the Science Media Production MSc), and opinion pieces (such as Alice Bell, course alumni and Senior Teaching Fellow at Imperial College, who calls for science communicators who “ask economic, political, and cultural questions as well as scientific ones...[who are] willing to feel a bit uncomfortable...and disagree” with funders, family, and friends).

Considering just politicised science takes away the main focus of the issue. Of course science communication has a purpose—a variety of roles, in fact. However, thinking too deeply into the practical uses of science communication may detract from its main selling point. “Once levered open by the enquiring mind, science fizzes with philosophical and cultural concerns,” writes Webster in his guest article. Trying to understand the relations between science and society involves many disciplines cut through with debate. But beneath it all, there will always be simple wonder.

- The I, Science 2011-2012 editorial team: Nicola Guttridge, Douglas Heaven, Peter Larkin, Siobhan Chan.