Thinking outside the ‘knowledge deficit’ box

Scientists could achieve more fulfilled professional lives by embracing the skills needed for effective interaction with the public
Chantal Pouliot, Julie Godbout

Author Affiliations

  • Chantal Pouliot, 1Département d'études sur l'enseignement et l'apprentissage, Faculté des sciences de l'éducation, Pavillon des Sciences de l'éducation Université Laval, Québec, Canada
  • Julie Godbout, 2Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service Laurentian Forestry Centre, Sainte‐Foy Québec, Canada

The professional activities of scientists are demanding and varied. In addition to their research activities, scientists are expected to be able to interact successfully with citizens to inform, consult, or, more rarely, work with them. In this article, we propose that the traditional model of communication itself—hereafter called the ‘deficit model’—makes scientist uncomfortable with this societal role and, as a consequence, makes them reluctant to actively engage with the public. In order to break down such barriers, we suggest complementing the skills of scientists with knowledge and experience from the social sciences fields that examine the relationships between science and society, namely Public Understanding of Science (PUS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS).

There is a tendency in the scientific community to think that citizens suffer from a deficit of knowledge and are incapable of grasping the complexity of science. As such, scientists believe that the public are in need of education. Such attitudes, implemented in the so‐called ‘knowledge deficit’ model of science communication (Fig 1), prevail, despite sociological studies that have demonstrated that citizens are able to understand both the complexity of research and the uncertainties accompanying many technological and scientific developments. We therefore argue that familiarizing scientists with the work of researchers in PUS and STS would enable them—including those who work outside academia—to become better attuned to the current needs of society and thereby benefit professionally.

Figure 1. Models of interactions between citizens and scientists


Our suggestion is timely. On the one hand, the majority of today's graduate students will not go on to an academic position, but will instead work for industry, private research institutes, government agencies or international organizations and institution. In the USA, for example, fewer than 25% of PhDs obtain a faculty position within 5 years of graduation [1]. Thus, academic and government representatives in …

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