Feb 2, 2011

Hear Me Out

The deficit model for science communication is one that has been around probably as long as science.  It is hard to put a specific date on it's creation as no one given individual or organization created it, the model just came in to existence.  Today the deficit model is regarded as inefficient and ineffective and the general consensus is that science communication should be done in an open discussion method (Phillips et al 2000), however is this truly the case? 

Before I go on to answer the above proposed question let me step back and provide a little background.  The deficit model for science communication like I mentioned has been around forever.  This model assumes that the “public” is ignorant about science but would readily accept it if they knew more about it.  It then becomes the responsibility of scientists to educate the ignorant masses and effectively pour knowledge into their brains.  This approach basically assumes that to know science is to love science. 

This model means well, the scientists still want to educate the public but what is lost is the engagement of the communication.  Communication cannot simply be one sided with a speaker teaching the masses, it has to be an open discussion allowing for upstream engagement (engaging the public at an early stage of research). 
So is this deficit model really outdated and science communication now works effectively as a discussion? Sadly no.  Using Biometrics as a case study I did research on open discussion events that deal with new Biometric technology when the technology is at an infant state, thus the public could have an influence on the development and the policy.  Here is what I found:

  • There are countless conferences on Biometrics.  Some held by government organizations, some held by organizations centered on advancements of Biometrics.  There was a conference not too long ago in September held by the  Biometric Consortium, and there is one coming up in April (in New Zeland).  These conferences are open to the public and you can attend for the low price of $1,550 (morning tea included).  Obviously for the general public such as you and I interested in Biometrics this is not an acceptable option.

  •  The U.S. government has a Subcommitee for the purpose of discussing Biometrics and Identity management. Great! Sounds exactly like what science communication should be like! However this subcommittee is hardly open to the public, it only includes people from government agencies. 

  • Last but not least I was able to find a forum Forum for exactly the purpose of open discussion.  Sadly however, the forum seems to have failed and seems to have last been updated in 2005. 

The above research shows an inconvenient truth.  Science communication is still very much dominated by the deficit model.  Hopefully someday this will change but for now the deficit model remains king.  So what do you think about all of this?  Do you even care about being able to participate in upstream development? How could the public get more involved in the development cycle? Or is it the responsibility of the organizations to involve us? Let me know your thoughts.




  1. There are times when the deficit model is appropriate. The major problem with it is when it is the only method of communication between parties. The deficit model does little to engage and motivate people about a subject but when used in conjunction with other methods of engagement can help foster the communication process. Sharing information with the public, for example, before a dialogue can strength public knowledge of the subject and improve the questions passed back and forth between the public and the experts during the forum.

  2. I agree that the method of delivery of the deficit model (i.e. lectures, presentations), has its benefits, however, the mindset and purpose of the deficit model is never appropriate in my opinion. Assuming that the public is ignorant never leads to anything helpful and constructive. So the lectures can continue, scientists just need to have a more open mindset about the public and how they perceive things. Thanks for the comment!