University of Oulu, 2017

BLOG: Scientific Discourse and the Public – Marketing of Scientific Discoveries

by Milka Väinämö, Oulu Business School, University of Oulu

Though science is often seen as an autonomous entity, the scientific research process is interlinked with, for instance, politics, economy and education. The production of new scientific knowledge most frequently takes place within publicly funded universities and research centers as a result of which their governing and funding is connected not only to the deciding bodies inside the universities but also to the decision-makers in government. Since public money is used to fund scientific research, it seems fair to argue that universities, research centers and individual scientists have a responsibility to report back to the public on what has been done with the money. Though that perhaps fights against the traditional, romanticized notion of a scientist working alone, accountable only to science, in my opinion the public should be aware of the research that has been conducted and the results that have been reached.

Linking Scientific and Other Discourses

Informing the public about scientific research might not be a straightforward process, though. One of the reasons for that is the fact that the scientific discourse is arguably very different from the public discourse or the so-called discourse of everyday life. Discourse refers to how we think and communicate about people, things and the society and to the process of making connections between these three elements. Foucault described discourse as a system that produces knowledge and meaning and as a system for organizing the meaning that has been created. Discourse not only shapes how and what we think, but it also shapes the ways in which we present what we think to others. The scientific discourse involves its own practices, traditions, and ways of speaking that are often quite separate from the characteristics of the discourse of everyday life. It could be argued that for scientists to effectively communicate about their findings outside the scientific community, the use of the everyday, public discourse is needed. As a marketing student I would like to think that one way to do this is to use marketing activities, particularly branding, to bridge the gap between the scientific discourse and the everyday discourse and thus make scientific knowledge more accessible for the public. After all, as an editorial by NewScientist (2011) argues, "science's future lies in its power to inspire, and inspiration does not come from desiccated academic jargon. Time to wise up on the power of the brand."

Branding as Tool

Branding is a marketing process that aims to create differentiation. For example, within the consumer goods market, Coca-Cola utilizes branding practices to differentiate itself from Pepsi, a product very similar to Coca-Cola in taste and outlook. Arguably, branding can be used in science to differentiate one scientific discovery from one another, mainly through the practice of naming. Additionally, branding can be used to simplify something complex into a more understandable and memorable form. Think of, for instance, polytetrafluoroethylene, a non-stick coating that can be applied to kitchenware discovered by American chemist Roy Plunkett in 1938. Going to a store and asking for a polytetrafluoroethylene pan seems overly complicated which is perhaps why an American chemical company Chemours decided to brand the finding as Teflon.

Other such instances of branding of scientific findings include, for instance, the presentation of The Higgs Boson as "the god particle". The Higgs boson, which is a particle that signals the existence of the Higgs field, might seem like a very difficult concept to grasp for someone who is not familiar with particle physics. By giving it the name "the god particle", Nobel prize winning physicist Leon Lederman and writer Dick Tereri attempted to establish the importance of the boson to the general public by introducing it in their 1993 book The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? through metaphors and narrative elements. Obviously, the word "god" comes with its own associations and by using it in the renaming of the Higgs boson, Lederman and Teresi aimed to establish its importance to particle physics – if they had named it "the Judas particle" or the "Apostle particle" the associations would likely be very different. Thus, Lederman and Teresi employed the narrative discourse, likely more familiar to the public than the scientific discourse due to mass consumption of visual media and literature, to explain a significant scientific discovery. Interestingly, the name given to the boson by Lederman and Teresi has been widely disregarded and disliked by the scientific community.

Reasons for Science Communication

Why should scientific discoveries be taken outside the scientific discourse and in some sense simplified to fit within the everyday discourse? As mentioned before, the use of public money to conduct research should come with some sort of obligation to report back on what has been done with that money. Secondly, by making science more accessible people can become more knowledgeable and critical. The importance of being able to think critically is important especially in connection to the messages we consume from media and politics – for example having easily accessible, scientifically valid information available about the global warming can help individuals to make their own judgements about statements made by certain politicians and governments.

It is important to note that the workings of the scientific discourse are often shaped by other discourses, for instance the political discourse. To finish with this blog post I thought it would be interesting to briefly introduce one, quite monumental example, in which the scientific discourse was used to feed political aspirations in the United States. This example arguably fits well within the purpose of this blog post particularly because conscious marketing activities were taken to justify the massive investment of government resources required for the project. It could very well be argued that in this instance the boundaries of different discourses – the scientific discourse, the political discourse, and the discourse of everyday life – became blurred and intertwined.

In September 1962, president John F. Kennedy delivered a speech known as the “We choose to go to the moon” -speech. In the speech, Kennedy defines moon as the “new frontier”, as a new area for the United States to conquer. Importantly, the Soviet Union is established as an “enemy” that is also after this new frontier. The speech was widely regarded as a mission to get support for JFK’s Apollo program, the very program discussed by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek on their book Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (2004). According to Meerman Scott and Jurek, the moon had to be first established as a sort of passage point in the fight for good and evil – this obviously connects to JFK’s talk about the new frontier and the fight between the US and the USSR in reaching the moon. Once the connection of the moon to the prevailing political climate was established, NASA had to generate content that would grow the general public’s interest in disciplines like engineering and physics. This was done in an easily accessible and understandable way through a wide array of public relations materials – interviews, radio shows, toys, and so on. Rather than utilizing too many scientific details and scientific jargon, these PR materials depicted the moon mission as something fun and exciting and the people involved in the mission as sort of superstars ready to conquer the new frontier. Once all these steps were taken, it was fair to expect that people would not only be watching the mission but would also agree with its importance and thus find the massive amounts of money used for it as justifiable.

So why is scientific knowledge still quite unavailable to people at times? Why are people not interested in science? While many scientific findings are not as significant and highly publicized as the mission to the moon, that doesn’t mean that they should not be communicated to the public. With today’s technological possibilities there are many ways in which scientists can communicate about their scientific findings on platforms used widely by the public. I believe one of the biggest hurdles to cross is to make the scientists interested in the idea of presenting, or even marketing, their findings in a way that is compact and easily understandable – within universities and within our disciplines we get so used to the norms of the scientific discourse that taking a step away from it might be challenging at times. This hurdle is something I believe should be crossed, though, because by making the public interested in science good things can follow – once the public sees the important work scientists do they are more prone to act, for example, when funding cuts take place. 

References

Adams, R. (2017, November 17). Michel Foucault: Discourse. Critical Legal Thinking. Retrieved from: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2017/11/17/michel-foucault-discourse/

Evans, R. (2011, December 14). The Higgs boson: Why scientists hate that you call it the ‘God particle’. National Post. Retrieved from: https://nationalpost.com/news/the-higgs-boson-why-scientists-hate-that-you-call-it-the-god-particle

Kennedy, J. (1962, September 12). We choose to go to the moon. Rice Stadium, Houston. Retrieved from: https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

Science needs smart brands too (2011, October 11). NewScientist. Retrieved from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228343-400-science-needs-smart-...

Scott, D.M. and Jurek, R. (2014). Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Last updated: 18.3.2019