Communicating Science

A Mere 11,7% of All Students Enroll in Science Programs at Austrian Universties

Opinion | Angela Woebking | April 2008

Let’s face it: most students despise science. Though unfortunate, in fact, science and technology are among the least favorite fields of study. The latest study reports by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, concluded that a mere 11.7% students enrolled in science programs at Austrian Universities.

This has not escaped the attention of the European Union who met in Lisbon in 2000 and established a set of goals "to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world…, focusing on boosting research and development," with a supporting study to measure the interest in scientific research in all of the EU’s 27 member states. Austria, it turns out, is part of the problem and may be impeding the successful achievement of that goal.

Less than half of Austrians (42%) report an interest in science, according to research conducted through the media, ranking below the EU-average of 57%. In Sweden for example, a whopping 80% of the population expressed interest in scientific research.

So where has Austria gone wrong? And how could this country achieve statistics similar to Sweden?

An answer may require an assessment of Sweden’s Ministry of Science, to see how science is promoted to a population of a little over nine million, just larger than Austria. However, a fleeting glance at Austria’s record quickly reveals potential problems.

Though Austria has launched several PR campaigns to help polish up the image of science, these appear to be missing vital elements. The Austrian Science Fund, for example, awards grants to stand-alone projects on the communication of basic scientific research. Though praiseworthy, how many are actually aware of this program supported by Austria’s Ministry of Science.

Many argue that the solution to the problem can only begin in the education system.  That may be true, and change would involve both retraining and support for teachers and professors willing to take the responsibility of spurring interest in science among young adults.

However, institutions such as the Austrian Science Fund, that has passed out  €163 Million in 2007 alone for the support of basic research, ought to take on an active roll in bringing this information to the public. And this may be the key to the problem. The focus needs to be on the general public as opposed to the existing scientific community.

"During a survey conducted by the Austrian Ministry of Science, two thirds of the respondents were incapable of naming a single Austrian researcher," says Heinz Oberhummer, a professor of physics at the Technical University Vienna.

"On many occasions, the scientists themselves were assigned the duty to produce the research pieces that were used to communicate to the public," suggesting that the material may have been too complex, the language too technical, and filled with professional jargon for a general reader to understand.

What is needed, Oberhummer says, are journalists capable of transforming complex scientific issues into messages that are accessible and appealing to the general public.

Educational programs like SciCo (, the Association for the Promotion of the Communication of Science, are a good start. These students complete a graduate program in Science Communication, which has defined the goals of teaching successful and professional communication of science.

Establishing a well-educated network of science communicators can help to shape the public’s awareness of scientific issues. The field of science and technology, which is advancing at a steady pace, offers subject matter of profound importance that also has the potential of stimulating interest even among those who tend to avoid it. The public also needs to keep up with these ever-advancing fields, to be an informed citizen in a world where science and technology defines so many areas of public policy.

A Long Night of Research (Lange Nacht der Forschung) in the tradition of the Long Night of Museums and of Churches, which  have drawn tens of thousands to Vienna’s houses of culture, is scheduled for November 2008 in Vienna and Klagenfurt, and could serve as a stepping-stone to growing public awareness and interest.

But Austria has a long way to go, if it plans to achieve a ranking remotely close to that of Sweden.

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